This information should not be relied upon as legal or professional advice. Read the disclaimer.

Fire and smoke alarms cannot prevent fire, but they can alert residents to the existence of a fire so they can put it out or leave the building.

Whether fire or smoke alarms must be installed in individual flats depends on when a building was built and whether a flat is rented:

There’s no requirement to install a communal fire alarm system in a purpose-built block of flats. The person responsible for a building’s fire safety will decide whether fire alarms in communal areas are needed to keep residents safe.

Building regulations and fire safety are devolved matters. This article focuses on England, further information on the devolved administration can be found in section 7 of the Library briefing on Fire safety in houses and blocks of flats.

Requirements for newly built flats

The fire safety of buildings when they are constructed (or refurbished) is governed by building regulations. There’s no requirement to retrofit existing buildings to comply with updated regulations. Whether these regulations apply to a building will therefore depend on when it was built or refurbished.

Current regulations require blocks of flats to be “designed and constructed so that there are appropriate provisions for the early warning of fire”.

To comply with current regulations, government guidance says “each flat in a block should have [fire] alarms” (PDF), but “a communal fire alarm system is not normally needed”. Smoke alarms must be installed in each flat at the time of construction in blocks of flats built since 1992 (PDF).

Additional requirements for high-rise blocks of flats

In addition to being equipped with fire alarms in individual flats, new blocks of flats built since December 2022 that are at least 18 metres in height should also be fitted with an evacuation alert system (PDF).

In an emergency, fire and rescue services can use an evacuation alert system to send a signal to all or parts of a building to alert residents that they need to evacuate. Unlike a fire alarm, which sounds automatically if it detects smoke or heat, an evacuation alert system does not incorporate any form of automatic detection. It’s manually controlled by fire and rescue services.

Rented properties: Requirements for landlords

Landlords are required to install at least one smoke alarm on each floor of a rented property where at least one room is used as living accommodation (subject to certain exclusions). This has been a requirement since October 2015 in private lets and since October 2022 for social lets.

Landlords must make sure the smoke alarm is working when first installed and at the start of each new tenancy. Once a tenancy has started, it’s usually the tenants who are responsible for testing the alarm.

If an alarm stops working, tenants are advised to replace the batteries. If a smoke alarm is faulty, they should inform their landlord who is required to repair or replace it “as soon as practicable”.

Communal areas in blocks of flats

All block of flats should have a ‘responsible person’ for fire safety. This role is usually fulfilled by the building owner or manager. They’re only responsible for fire safety in communal areas (such as staircases and corridors), not for fire safety in individual flats.

The responsible person must carry out and regularly review fire risk assessments to identify what is needed to prevent fires and keep residents safe. They must have measures in place to reduce any identified risks.

No requirement for a communal fire alarm system

Whether a communal fire alarm system is needed to keep residents in a building safe is for the responsible person to decide.

The National Fire Chiefs Council advises them to temporarily install fire alarms in communal areas, if they identify significant failings in other fire precautions and adopt a ‘simultaneous evacuation’ strategy.

Why are blocks of flats not required to have a communal fire alarm system?

Most purpose-built blocks of flats in England do not have a communal fire alarm system because they were designed to support a ‘stay put’ strategy.

The idea underlying the ‘stay put’ strategy is that a fire will be contained in its flat of origin, only residents in that flat need to evacuate.

To enable a ‘stay put’ strategy, a building needs to have ‘effective compartmentation’. This means individual flats are separated by fire-resisting barriers (walls, floors and ceilings). In the event of a fire, these barriers should contain a fire long enough for fire and rescue services to extinguish it before it spreads.

Government guidance says a communal fire alarm system is usually not needed in purpose-built blocks of flats with a ‘stay put’ strategy. It points to concerns that a communal fire alarm system could lead to many false alarms and to residents ignoring real alarms. If all residents try to leave a building at the same time, they might also move from a safer flat to a communal area with smoke or fire and impede access for firefighters.

In contrast, in a building with a ‘simultaneous evacuation’ strategy, if there is a fire in any part of a building, a communal fire alarm system will alert all residents at the same time that they need to evacuate.

Reporting concerns and enforcement

Constituents who are concerned their block of flats is non-compliant may contact the relevant enforcement authority:

Further information

About the author: Felicia Rankl is a researcher at the House of Commons Library, specialising in areas of building regulations, planning and economic inactivity.


The Commons Library does not intend the information in this article to address the specific circumstances of any particular individual. We have published it to support the work of MPs. You should not rely upon it as legal or professional advice, or as a substitute for it. We do not accept any liability whatsoever for any errors, omissions or misstatements contained herein. You should consult a suitably qualified professional if you require specific advice or information. Read our briefing for information about sources of legal advice and help.

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