ArticleCompetence and the Electrician

Competence and the Electrician

When electricians are required to install fire detection and fire alarm systems within domestic premises, it is often the case that the design of such systems is effectively undertaken by others – for example, manufacturers or housebuilders. For domestic installations, such designers may detail what types of alarms should be installed, where such alarms should be installed, and then provide the alarms specified.

This article will consider whether such an approach meets the recommendations of BS 5839- 6: 2019 Fire detection and fire alarm systems for buildings Part 6: Code of practice for the design, installation, commissioning and maintenance of fire detection and fire alarm systems in domestic premises.

To provide a context, it is important that the reader understands how standards, other guidance and legislation interplay to achieve the desired outcome of safe homes.

BS 5839-6

BS 5839-6 is a code of practice published by BSI detailing the recommendations for the planning, design, installation, commissioning and maintenance of fire detection and fire alarm systems in domestic premises. Such domestic premises include:

  • Single family accommodation
  • Houses in multiple occupation (HMOs)
  • Sheltered housing
  • Supported housing.

The recommendations detailed in this standard apply to both new and existing domestic premises.

BS 5839-6 applies, therefore, to bungalows, multi-storey houses, individual flats, maisonettes, mobile homes, holiday homes, sheltered housing, mansions, shared houses, houses divided into several self-contained single-family dwelling units.

BS 5839-6 does not apply to hostels, caravans, boats (other than permanently moored boats used as a residential premises), the communal parts of blocks of flats or maisonettes, or any non-domestic premises.

BS 5839-6 applies across the whole of the United Kingdom.


For England and Wales, Part B Fire Safety (Means of warning and escape) detailed in Schedule 1 of the Building Regulations, requires that, ‘...a building is designed and constructed so that there are appropriate provisions for the early warning of fire, and appropriate means of escape in case of fire from the building to a place of safety outside the building capable of being safely and effectively used at all material times.’

Similar legislation exists in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

It is this requirement that creates the need for appropriate guidance as detailed below for the minimum grade and category of system.

Other standards

The first point of confusion arises due to the specific minimum requirements that exist within each part of the home nations. Consider the following in each part of the UK:

  • In England, Approved Document B (Volume 1) 2019 (as amended 2020) provides guidance on the requirements of the Building Regulations 2010 for England. In Approved Document B (ADB) the minimum grade and category of system is Grade D2, Category LD3.
  • In Wales, ADB refers to a minimum grade and category of system of Grade D and Category LD3. The Welsh ADB is slightly confusing in that it has been amended to 2020 but does reference the most recent version of BS 5839-6.
  • In Scotland, the Building standards technical handbook 2019: domestic, recommends smoke alarms are installed in the principal habitable room, every circulation space on each storey and every access room serving an inner room. The technical handbook also recommends that a heat alarm is also installed in every kitchen. In effect this means that the minimum grade and category of system is Grade D, Category LD2.
  • In Northern Ireland, Technical booklet E details similar recommendations as those in Scotland.

In practice, therefore, there is much room for a level of confusion to exist and a consistent approach can be difficult to attain.

General approach to design is often inappropriate

The vast majority of fatalities caused by fire occur in the home. In the year ending March 2020, there were 243 fire-related fatalities in England, of which 199 occurred in dwellings.1 It is also clear from these statistics that the elderly have a higher fire-related fatality rate, and, furthermore, elderly men are more likely to die than elderly women.

From the statistics, it is clear that a standard approach to the planning and design of fire detection and fire alarm systems is not ideal. To quote part of the commentary of Clause 4.1 in BS 5839-6, ‘...the design of any fire detection and fire alarm system installed in accordance with this part of BS 5839 needs to be based on a good understanding of fire risk in domestic premises.’

As part of the fire-risk assessment therefore, BS 5839-6 expects the designer to account for the probability of:

  1. fire occurring
  2. injury or death of occupants if fire occurs
  3. the system operating correctly at the time of fire
  4. early detection and warning of occupants in the event of fire.

A standard approach to the grade and category of fire detection and fire alarm system in a dwelling takes no account of individual circumstances, and too often there is little thought given to the recommendations detailed in BS 5839-6 for different grades and categories of system. Clause 4.2b) recommends that where it is practicable the design of the fire detection and fire alarm system should be based on some form of fire risk assessment. Further guidance is found in Annex A of BS 5839-6.

Table 1 in BS 5839-6 provides a very helpful series of recommendations for the minimum grades and categories of system for most dwellings. This table provides a sensible starting point for judging whether the grade and category of system is appropriate, taking account of the fire risk assessment that should have been carried out by the designer.

A contractor has been asked to rewire a house. As part of such a rewire it will be necessary to install a new fire detection and fire alarm system as recommended by BS 5839-6. The residents include those who are hard of hearing. A suitable fire risk assessment would have to take account of the nature of this disability. This would be a significant factor in the selection of appropriate alarms over and above the relevant smoke and heat alarms.

The issue that arises from such a general approach to design, is whether, or not, the installer is too reliant on the design capabilities of the manufacturer or housebuilder, and whether they are complying with the recommendations of BS 5839-6 when considering a specific dwelling.


Annex E of BS 5839-6 contains a model certificate for Grade C, Grade D and Grade F fire detection and fire alarm systems. This certificate should be issued for the design, installation and commissioning of fire detection and fire alarm systems. This certificate should also be accompanied by an Electrical Installation Certificate conforming to the requirements of BS 7671.

The first part of the fire detection and fire alarm certificate should be completed by the designer. The certificate makes this note:

‘Where design, installation and commissioning are not all the responsibility of a single organisation or person, the relevant words should be deleted The signatory of the certificate should sign only as confirmation that the work for which they have been responsible complies with the relevant recommendations of BS 5839-6: 2019. A separate certificate should then be issued for other work.’

The following situations could arise from this:
a) the contractor has carried out all work and all parts of the form are signed accordingly
b) the manufacturer/housebuilder has designed the system and the contractor only installs and commissions the system.

Where the second of the two situations arise, it should be the case that two certificates are issued: one for design and one for installation and commissioning. However, it is often the case that the contractor will not get a ‘design’ signature and he or she issues the completed certificate, incorrectly assuming responsibility for the design as well as for installation and commissioning.

The assumption of such responsibility where such design work has not been undertaken is unwise. Should a dispute arise the certificate issued will have demonstrated ‘proof’ that the contractor has carried out all three elements (design, installation, and commissioning).

Practical guide to Grade D fire alarm systems

The practical guide to Grade D fire alarm systems was written by Tim Benstead, the former Principal Technical Author of the NICEIC, to support the electrician as they seek to understand their roles and responsibilities when designing, installing, commissioning, and maintaining Grade D fire detection and fire alarm systems. The book’s design and illustrations were done by Alex Whitworth who also did the artwork for NICEIC publications.

The idea for the book grew out of a need for the industry to demonstrate competence in light of the Grenfell Tower tragedy. The Hackitt Report rightly highlighted the concern that industry had a ‘race to the bottom’ mentality and had lost sight of the principle that people should not only feel safe in their own homes but to actually be safe.

This book gives the reader a clear understanding of their roles and responsibilities, whether that be as a contractor, designer, landlord or housing manager, and provides a suitable context in which all such work should be carried out. The book is written in a clear and concise style and covers all aspects relating to competence, fire risk assessment, design, installation, commissioning, and maintenance.

Tim is a member of JPEL64, Chair of JPEL64/B and a member of FSH12/1, the BSI committee responsible for BS 5839-1 and BS 5839-6 for fifteen years. He writes with authority and understands the concerns of the contractor and those responsible for domestic premises.