National high street firm fined for serious breaches of fire safety

The high street retailer New Look has been fined £400,000 and ordered to pay £136,052 in costs after pleading guilty to serious breaches of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (the “RRO”). It is the largest fine under the RRO.

London Fire Brigade prosecuted New Look following a serious fire at their Oxford Street store on 26 April 2007. Thirty fire engines and around 150 firefighters were needed to tackle the blaze and crews remained at the scene for the next three days. The first call to the Brigade was not from a member of staff but from an office worker in an adjacent building. This delay meant that when crews arrived the fire had already developed and had broken through the second floor windows. Despite the building’s fire alarm sounding, it was reset on at least one occasion.

Over 450 people evacuated from the store and surrounding premises. A significant amount of Oxford Street was closed to traffic and the public which resulted in businesses being closed for a further two days after the blaze.

Following the fire, the Brigade carried out several fire safety inspections at the premises and found a substantial number of breaches of fire legislation. The most serious of these was an inadequate fire risk assessment which was found to have number failures, including no record of appropriate fire procedures including the correct one to adopt when the fire alarm activated.

The RRO requires that the responsible person (in a workplace, the employer) to carry out a suitable and sufficient fire risk assessment and act on its findings.

Another significant breach was the insufficient training of staff which led to a delayed evacuation of the premises and staff being ill prepared to respond to a fire or fire alarm signal. Staff did not use the appropriate fire exits to evacuate the public which meant that approximately 150 people were evacuated through the main entrance which was directly underneath the fire on the second floor.

Other serious deficiencies included all of the basement fire exits being unavailable to members of staff and the public due to the failure of an interface between the swipe card system and the fire alarm. The swipe card system should have been connected to the fire alarm system and have deactivated the doors. Not all members of staff were issued with swipe cards and green emergency break glass – designed to over ride the door locks – were fitted on the wrong side of the doors in the basement. The premises was also found to have significant storage in escape routes on all floors.

The Judge formally commended Station Manager Martin Redmond and retired Watch Manager Steven Lewis-Mitchell for their great care and skill in investigating this case. He also said that the whole fire safety team should be thanked by the public for the work they do.

Councillor Brian Coleman AM FRSA, Chairman of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, said: “Good business management includes taking responsibility for fire safety, knowing the law and acting on it. This conviction shows that large companies are not exempt from prosecution and that London Fire Brigade will take action when businesses do not take their fire safety responsibilities seriously. Failure to comply with the law can, as this case has shown, result in a substantial fine.”

Sentencing of New Look took place at Southwark Crown Court on 25 November 2009 after they pleaded guilty to two breaches of the RRO.