Rose & Crown hotel fire, Saffron Walden

The Boxing Day fire at the Rose & Crown, which left 11 dead, led to the shaping of today’s fire safety regulation across all hotels. The fire, which broke out at 1.30am, is believed to have been caused after a TV in the hotel’s lounge overheated. Two guests raised the alarm after leaving their rooms when they smelled smoke. The blaze ripped through the building, trapping residents on the upper levels.

Essex County Fire Brigade firefighters were able to search the ground and first floors but needed ladders to reach those trapped higher up. There were 33 people staying at the hotel that night. In addition to the two who spotted the fire, nine were rescued by ladders and five by locals who assisted with the rescue operation, and three jumped to safety. Crews assisted a further three to safety from the upper floors. Those who died were found on the second and third floors.

The Rose and Crown was a 15th-century building and the fire raised questions about the safety of the premises. As a result, the government passed the Fire Precautions Act 1971. The Act gave the Secretary of State the power to “designate” any premise types he/she wanted to be covered by the act.

As a result of the Rose & Crown fire, hotels and boarding houses were the first premises to be designated as requiring a fire certificate issued by the fire brigade. The fire certificates were backed up with a rigorous inspection and enforcement regime by the local brigade’s fire safety officers and regular visits by local fire crews.

Factories, offices, shops and railway premises soon followed. Thus the Fire Precautions Act replaced the fire safety requirements of the Factories Act and the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act, and the Licensing Act continued to deliver fire safety in licenced premises (but single private dwellings were excluded). On applying for a fire certificate, owners had a duty to prove that their premises had a means of safe escape and that staff were fully trained in fire safety. The legislation gave powers to fire authorities to apply to courts to ban any premises deemed too dangerous.

However, the strict enforcement and inspection attracted criticism by some business leaders and an agenda grew under successive governments to “cut red-tape”, including the deregula­tion of fire safety. On 1st October 2006, the government rolled-up nearly all the preceding pieces of UK Fire Safety legislation into the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order and in so doing repealed the Fire Precautions Act 1971 and revoked the Fire Precautions (workplace) Regulation 1997. This ended certifi­cation by fire authorities and instead of fire officers telling business how to meet the necessary standard of fire safety, businesses had to work it out for themselves by carrying out their own fire risk assessment.

This system would work well if fire authorities had continued to employ sufficient fire safety officers to inspect the buildings and to make sure that the fire risk assessments were done properly.  But instead they cut the number of fire safety officers by 50 to 75%; however, a number of fatal fires in multi-storey housing since 2006 have raised questions about the impact of such huge cuts to the numbers of fire safety officers and firefighters employed by local fire brigades.

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