New dawn

29 April 2021

In an exclusive first interview for the sector’s trade media, Fire Safety Matters’ Editor Brian Sims hears from the Association for Specialist Fire Protection’s new CEO Steve Davies about his bold plans for the organisation and also learns about his considered views on upcoming issues and concerns relating to the passive fire protection sector

STEVE DAVIES is the new CEO at the Association for Specialist Fire Protection (ASFP) having taken the reins from outgoing CEO Niall Rowan at the organisation’s Annual General Meeting held on Wednesday 28 April. Davies is a Chartered Mechanical Engineer who brings a wealth of experience in senior leadership to the role, as well as technical and operational capabilities gained in a range of industry sectors.

A skilled Trade Association CEO, Davies boasts a strong track record of advancing and growing the reach and profile of such bodies, as well as developing and improving member support and services. What, though, are his plans for the ASFP and what does he believe to be the major challenges for the industry now and into the future? Fire Safety Matters’ Editor Brian Sims chatted with the ASFP’s new leader in a bid to fund out.

Fire Safety Matters: First of all, Steve, can you tell us a little about your professional background?

Steve Davies: I joined the ASFP from the Lighting Industry Association where I was the CEO for over seven years, leading the organisation through a successful period of growth and development, including the establishment of a UKAS-accredited product testing laboratory and an industry-specific training academy. Prior to that, I was CEO of the (then) newly-established National Skills Academy for Power with responsibility for its creation, growth and development and also served as CEO/commercial director at Make UK/EEF Ltd, where I was responsible for the operational and strategic management of a regional association and UK-wide commercial activity.

My early career was in the rail industry working for the (then) newly-privatised British Rail Engineering Ltd and also Bombardier Transportation, specialising in mergers and acquisitions of factories and production facilities based out of the latter’s European headquarters in Berlin.

Fire Safety Matters: Where do you hope to take the ASFP from this point onwards?

Steve Davies: I’m really excited to join the ASFP at such a pivotal time in the industry’s development. The Association has become increasingly important in recent years as the sector rises to the challenges rightly thrust upon it following a number of high-profile fire-related tragedies. I want to build on its achievements and continue the ASFP’s transformation into a modern, professional and outward-reaching body that will represent the needs of its members and the industry long into the future.

The ASFP already enjoys an enviable reputation as a leading authority on passive fire protection, but I will seek to raise its profile and influence in the wider construction industry even further by ‘raising the bar’, ensuring that the competency and professionalism of the organisation’s members is demonstrable and, importantly, recognised throughout the sector.

The ASFP’s reputation as a trusted source of independent advice is based on its highly successful technical and training offerings. They will be key to its future growth. New frameworks and targeted learning will take these elements to the next level and enable the ASFP to reach a broader audience, duly advancing knowledge and guidance on all aspects of ‘built-in’ fire protection.

We’re all very used to receiving our information in an online format now and the ASFP will build on that by offering a blend of digital and classroom training formats to suit our audience as it grows. In essence, my plan will be to focus on the three key areas of influence, competency and compliance.

In terms of influence, I've been hugely impressed to learn how well the ASFP is perceived in the sector. However, that situation requires an incredible amount of work to maintain and, while of course we’ll strive to be relevant to our members, we need to broaden our reach in order to play an educating and trusted advisory role for the wider fire, design and construction sectors.

I’ve witnessed a real desire from everyone to improve the industry and the competency of those who operate within it. The success of – and demand for – the training now being offered by the ASFP is testament to this and there’s clearly huge potential for continued growth in this aspect of the Association’s offer. As this gains momentum, our influence and growth in competency will strengthen the perception of the sector. The wider industry is crying out for a recognisable pathway to competence in passive fire protection and the ASFP has the basic building blocks in place to make this happen.

Finally, my thoughts on compliance. One issue the industry clearly struggles with is that of compliance and what it means to various parties. This is by no means an issue unique to passive fire protection, but it’s a critical one. Unless we as the ASFP and our members can meet it head on, we do risk leaving ourselves open to criticism.

My aim is to use the compliance agenda to drive up the standing of ASFP members compared to non-members through clear member requirements and demonstrable actions, as well as members publicly agreeing to abide by compliance criteria the rest of the industry understands and appreciates. The ASFP’s message needs to be that of promoting its members to the sector as the place to go for competent and compliant services and products. If we achieve that then members will see real value in being part of the Association.

Fire Safety Matters: Competency appears to be a significant issue for the construction industry as a whole. What can the ASFP do to improve levels of competency in the passive fire protection sector?

Steve Davies: Competency across the construction industry will become increasingly important as the recommendations from the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety are introduced via the new Building Safety Bill and the Fire Safety Bill. I believe the industry is well aware there’s room for improvement in terms of competency so I fully intend to ensure the ASFP is at the centre of driving this agenda in a format that will be beneficial to all parties. How the industry responds and rises to this challenge will ultimately determine fire safety in buildings into the future.

The ASFP is well placed to influence this issue as we have representation on all of the important groups charged with developing and implementing competency requirements. We’ve been working hard to raise the bar in the passive fire protection sector through the development of appropriate passive fire protection training and qualifications. The ASFP’s Foundation Course in Passive Fire Protection was launched in 2018 and enables learners to study towards Level 2 and 3 qualifications in the discipline awarded by the Institution of Fire Engineers (IFE). These are the only passive fire protection qualifications recognised by Ofqual.

We’ve just launched a revolutionary e-Learning platform to support those wishing to study for the IFE qualifications. It uses adaptive learning techniques, tailoring the teaching to each individual’s skills, knowledge, experience and behaviours, ensuring that every learner receives precisely the right level of instruction and support to achieve exceptional levels of understanding and proficiency. This unique interactive learning experience will provide the perfect learning pathway for each individual, allowing them to develop the necessary competencies in the most efficient and effective way.

Over the next few months, this training offer will be enhanced with shorter, more ‘bite-sized’ learning modules designed to create a much-needed professional development pathway in terms of passive fire safety.

In terms of ‘raising the bar’, the ASFP has already introduced new membership requirements from 1 January 2021 which make it mandatory for member companies to demonstrate that their employees have been suitably trained and/or have achieved appropriate qualifications in passive fire protection.

This new requirement is intended to demonstrate to the wider industry that the Association and its members are committed to being professional and competent by going ‘above and beyond’ and exceeding the current competency expectations of the passive fire protection industry.

By meeting the ASFP’s strict entry requirements, members will be able to clearly demonstrate their skills, competence and professionalism. Implemented over a period of three years, member companies will have to demonstrate that certain relevant staff in defined roles have obtained IFE Level 2 or 3 qualifications or NVQ Level 2 qualifications in passive fire protection via manufacturer training and relevant CSCS cards, or have undertaken the ASFP’s Online Introduction to Passive Fire Protection.

Fire Safety Matters: Do you believe professionals in other sectors of the construction realm have enough awareness of the vital role of passive fire protection? 

Steve Davies: Dame Judith Hackitt’s report highlighted a high degree of fragmentation throughout the construction supply chain. Consequently, the ASFP has an ongoing programme of advancing education throughout the construction process. We run hugely popular Continuing Professional Development seminars and webinars and deliver presentations at industry events, as well as working with other Trade Associations across the industry to reach audiences involved in design, specification, installation and maintenance, educating building owners, occupiers and inspection bodies as part of the mix.

A wide range of the ASFP’s technical and other publications on passive fire protection are available to download from our website. Some of these are referenced in Approved Document B relating to the Building Regulations in England and offer Best Practice guidance on everything from firestopping and structural protection through to fire risk assessments.

Fire Safety Matters: As construction methods and materials change, what can be done to ensure the safety of the built environment going forward?

Steve Davies: A trend towards modern methods of construction will mean that greater importance and scrutiny of building construction and passive fire protection measures to protect buildings is needed such that we don’t ‘sleep-walk’ into another catastrophe.

Issues regarding timber-framed construction and cladding products, to name but two forms of modern methods of construction, are now well-known. The ASFP is concerned that the use of such materials, in conjunction with poor levels of build quality and little understanding of fire protection principles, could put lives at risk.

Further, how buildings are managed and maintained throughout their lives is vital. It’s important to ensure that all activities within a building that might affect its fire performance are monitored and addressed because, during the life of that building, work will be undertaken by a range of contractors, follow-on trades and maintenance staff.

Another factor that can influence the safety of a building is the misinterpretation of fire test evidence when specifying materials and products. How the validity of a fire test report or assessment certification is interpreted could mean the difference as to whether the fire protection measure in question succeeds or fails in its objectives.

A fire test on a traditional construction system may not be valid for a modern method of construction. The product/system supplier must be able to demonstrate that the solution can evidence appropriate performance in the conditions outlined within the building design chosen, ideally via third party certification linked to defined national testing standards. A stand-alone, small-scale, ad-hoc test is, on its own, insufficient for this purpose.

The ASFP believes that quality of construction is achieved by the use of third party-certificated products installed by third party-certificated installers, all backed up by a rigorous inspection regime. Third party schemes are independent of the provider and examine a provider’s quality control procedures and records of, for example, factory production control. They evaluate relevant staff, for example the competence of installers, and take ‘snapshots’ of provider performance via sample selection, in turn providing a guarantee for end users and other stakeholders.

The ASFP continues to develop quality and safety schemes to adapt to the needs introduced by modern methods of construction and will continue to do so with the assistance of its members while working with inspection bodies.

To ensure the quality of installations, the ASFP has – for over 20 years now - required its installer members to register on a third party UKAS-accredited installer scheme. With these competency and training requirements in place, we hope to drive up competency levels right across the spectrum.

Fire Safety Matters: Do you believe Brexit is having – and will have – a major impact on the sector?

Steve Davies: In addition to the instant impact of custom delays and increased costs and red tape, it’s the conformity assessment of products and the application of specific marks that’s causing the most immediate concern.

The trade and co-operation agreement offers clarity on the Rules of Origin Declaration needed to avoid export tariffs to the European Union (EU) and the current position regarding standards for tests. It also makes it clear that the UK has regulatory autonomy, meaning there’s no automatic alignment with the EU. While there appears to be no rush to diverge from EU regulation, this could well happen in the future.

The main area of concern is that the agreement doesn’t provide for mutual recognition of conformity assessment or test results. Currently, the UK has said that it will provide mutual recognition for products carrying a CE mark until I January 2022, while the EU has offered no such transition period for UK and EU manufacturers who use UK Notified Bodies and Technical Assessment Bodies for testing. The need for some kind of mutual recognition agreement covering recognition of testing and conformity assessment is clear and the ASFP will continue to call for this as a priority alongside mutual recognition of qualifications.

Fire Safety Matters: Are there any concerns focused around the potential effects of the new Building Safety Bill?

Steve Davies: In addition to introducing new competency requirements, the Building Safety Bill will also have a significant effect on construction product standards over the coming years. It aims to create a list of Safety-Critical Products, while a new Construction Products Regulator has been established within the Office of Product Safety and Standards. This will further complicate the situation and, I believe, exert a significant impact on the passive fire protection sector.

The Building Safety Bill is likely to pass into UK law in 2022 and, some two months after this is enacted, the construction products clauses will come into effect. These enable the Secretary of State to identify and list Safety-Critical Product families. Since existing EU regulations are aimed at free movement of products and equivalent standards, not product safety, this is likely to impact  regulations and existing product standards (ie hEN/dBS and EAD/forthcoming UKAD) and result in a raft of new product standards being drafted and implemented.

In four or five years’ time, then, designated safety-critical construction products being placed on the UK market – passive fire protection products among them – are likely to be subject to mandatory quality marking and will need to meet additional test requirements.