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Innovative voice safety pilot system for high rise flats

Published: Monday, 30th November 2020

Joint project by South Essex Homes, Southend Borough Council and Essex County Fire & Rescue Service

A pilot system designed to give clear instructions to residents in high rise social housing during emergencies is being launched in Southend-on-Sea.

The voice annunciation system is being trialled in Longbow Flats, and is thought to be one of the first installations of its kind into a tower block used for social housing.

Southend-on-Sea Borough Council, in partnership with South Essex Homes and Essex County Fire & Rescue Service’s Technical Fire Safety Team, have approved the installation, the design of which enables fire rescue services to access a one-way microphone located on the ground floor in the event of an emergency situation.

If successful, the pilot scheme could be rolled out to other social housing blocks within Southend-on-Sea, as a direct response to the report into Grenfell Tower fire.

One of the early findings in the public enquiry following the tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire on 14 June 2017 was the inability of the Fire Rescue Service to be able to communicate with the residents in the block to advise them whether or not to leave their flats.

The recent publication of phase one of the public enquiry, by Sir Martin Moore-Bick, has highlighted a need for the Fire Rescue Services to be able to send an evacuation signal to the whole or a selected part of the building.

Cllr Ian Gilbert, Leader of Southend-on-Sea Borough Council, said: “We will support any scheme which helps keep our residents safe, especially within their own homes and we are grateful to South Essex Homes and Essex County Fire & Rescue for initiating this pilot and putting Southend’s high rise social housing at the forefront of these changes within the UK.”

The system allows the fire rescue services to communicate directly to the residents of Longbow through a distributed network of loudspeakers in the block, giving them guidance and assistance. There is an option to select individual floors or multiple floor levels and loudspeakers will be mounted in the communal landings, stairwells and above the entrance doors within every property.

The system shall only ever be used in the event of an emergency situation and may, for example, enable fire rescue services to coordinate an evacuation of the building or to reassure residents that they need to stay indoors.

Mario Ambrose, Executive Director at South Essex Homes, said: “As this project is unique in the social housing sector, once it is complete we will need time for Essex County Fire & Rescue Service to assess its effectiveness as they will ultimately be the end users. Should it prove successful, we will then look to begin a programme to have similar systems installed in all the high rise blocks in Southend.”

Works will begin at Longbow in Sherwood Way, Southend, on Monday 30 November 2020 and will involve minimal disruption to residents, with a small speaker being installed above the front door just inside each flat. Work is expected to be completed in March 2021.

Mark Earwicker, Group Manager of Essex County Fire and Rescue Service, said:  "The installation of an annunciation system will enable our firefighters to remotely sound the alarms and communicate with specific floors or the whole building should it be required during a fire. 

"With this system in place, residents can be reassured that they can safely stay in their flats during a fire unless circumstances mean that we need them to leave the building.

"This is a positive advancement in fire safety equipment which will not only help to protect the residents of the building, but make it easier for firefighters to communicate and evacuate the building if required".