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'I've dealt with murder, gang-related violence & sexual offences...but flagrantly breaching fire safety appals me'

By Poppleston Allen

- Last updated on GMT

'I've dealt with murder, gang-related violence & sexual offences...but flagrantly breaching fire safety appals me'
In my years as a licensing lawyer I have dealt with many unpleasant and upsetting cases — murders, glassings, gang-related violence and very serious sexual offences committed on licensed premises.

However, nothing appals me more than when I hear of a licensee flagrantly breaching fire safety laws, as I did when I read the article about the licensee of the Good Intent, in Walworth, south London, published online on 5 February 2016​.

The licensee in that case was handed a 16-month suspended sentence for a litany of breaches of fire regulations under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005.

These included failing to make a suitable and sufficient fire risk assessment; failing to provide an adequate system of fire detection and fire-fighting equipment; failing to preserve the integrity of the means of escape; and failing to ensure that an escape door could easily and immediately be opened in the event of an emergency (among other counts).

Fires

However, thankfully, in that case, no one appears to have been hurt or injured in a fire so why does this particular report upset me so? The answer goes back to having attended a “running a safe event” conference a few years back. The delegates were shown a video of a fire at the Station nightclub at Rhode Island in 2003, during a gig by a band called Great White.

One hundred (mainly young) people were killed and a further 187 were injured in that fire, which started when the pyrotechnic display behind the band ignited polyurethane foam insulation lining the walls and ceiling area over the dance floor. In seconds, the gig turned from a place of enjoyment to a place of terror and imprisonment.

People could not get out — human nature being what it is, many tried to escape the way they had come in rather than using the other fire exits (whose lights were dimmed by thick smoke). It is not the images from the footage that linger, but the voices.

Public safety

Public safety is perhaps the least quoted licensing objective. Crime and disorder, nuisance (noise) and protection of children from harm tend to be the staple for a typical pub or bar where things have started to go wrong.

Many are the times, however, when I have attended a client’s premises prior to a review for one or indeed all of those three licensing objectives and, taking a tour around the premises my layman’s eye has immediately noticed issues relating to problems with the fire safety side of things as well. It may be boxes stacked up against the fire exit, no obvious fire exits at all or an absence of fire instruction notices.

I remember once seeing emergency signs pointing to an exit beyond which was an 8ft drop. The exit was partially blocked by chairs. I guess in his confused state of thinking, the individual in question had blocked the door to prevent someone breaking their legs but not blocked it so much as to be inaccessible in the event of a real fire.

Order

The 2005 Fire Safety Order placed the responsibility for ensuring fire safety on the owners and operators of licensed premises. The vast majority of operators have embraced this either directly or through the use of external consultants, retired fire officers or taking advice from the local fire authority.

But even if you are confident that you are compliant with the order, be aware licensing committees often want to know what your ‘safe capacity’ limit is, even if fire and safety issues are not strictly the reason you are appearing before them. I routinely warn clients that such a question may be asked and this prompts a hasty calculation on the back of the proverbial fag packet.

The question is often asked and my client has an answer. I do, however, wonder to what real extent the detail of the 2005 order has been complied with.

If you have any doubt about your compliance then a good place to start is the ‘fire safety in the workplace’ section at www.gov.uk.

Related topics: Licensing law

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