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Back to Business

01 October 2020

Business continuity encompasses a loosely defined set of planning, preparatory and related activities intended to ensure that an organisation’s critical business functions will either continue to operate despite serious incidents or disasters that might otherwise have interrupted them, or will be recovered to an operational state within a reasonably short period. With this in mind, Stephen Adams discusses why the COVID-19 pandemic should be the only thing potentially preventing businesses from trading this year

THE COVID-19 pandemic in the UK is part of the worldwide pandemic of Coronavirus disease 2019 (ie COVID-19) caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome Coronavirus 2 (ie SARS-CoV-2). The potentially deadly virus first reached our shores back in late January. As of Thursday 10 September, there had been 358,138 confirmed cases and 41,608 deaths as a result of confirmed cases of the virus, representing the world’s sixth-highest death rate per hundred thousand members of the population.

With the pandemic having made a swift impact on pretty much every aspect of life, for the most part negative in nature, in the initial stages the Government – as directed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a televised address to the nation at 8.30 pm on Monday 23 March – urged people to leave their homes on as few occasions as possible and only then for absolutely essential purposes (such as grocery shopping), medical needs or exercise.

The stringent lockdown measures were introduced in order to slow the rate of infection of the Coronavirus across the nation, while at the same time supporting the stretched National Health Service. The ‘state of quarantine’ also exerted an impact on life in the UK. Gatherings of more than two people from different households were banned, with the police given powers to enforce these new rules in a bid to keep people safe from COVID-19.  

As we all know, the pandemic has been a hugely disruptive force in terms of its economic impact, with most sectors and workforces adversely affected. Some of the temporary shutdowns for businesses have, sadly, become permanent. Some of those workers who were furloughed have since been made redundant with firms finding it difficult to make ends meet.

Business optimism across the UK actually jumped sharply in August after many companies enjoyed a better summer than anticipated. However, with much of this optimism contingent on Government support and lockdown restrictions lifting, fears of the impact of a second wave, ongoing Brexit uncertainty and the end of the furlough support scheme, the next few months may well present significant challenges.

Fire safety legislation

During the more restricted COVID-19 lockdown measures, BAFE continued to advise that fire safety legislation was still very much being enforced and, therefore, premises managers should continue to responsibly uphold their obligations. This advice was confirmed by multiple Fire and Rescue Services. 

On that note, during a Business Safety-focused web chat hosted by the Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service on Wednesday 27 May, the comment was made that: “Fire safety legislation is still being enforced [and] we have measures in place to enforce this… The ‘Responsible Person’ still has responsibilities under the Fire Safety Order and any changes need to be included within fire risk assessments, with those undertaking them looking to see if any additional measures may need to be put in place to ensure fire safety requirements are met.”

As lockdown measures began to ease, BAFE again reminded premises managers to ensure their COVID-19 safety measures were established (eg one-way systems and blocking access to direct foot traffic, etc) and also urged them to review the fire safety and emergency-centric elements of this. Any new systems introduced to mitigate the virus spread should prompt a thorough review of the fire risk assessment. 

In June, the Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service’s station manager Bill Shepherd (of the Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service’s Protection Department) reinforced this message by stating: “As Government guidance changes and lockdown restrictions are eased, more and more people will be returning to work, but we understand that businesses are still not operating at what they would deem to be ‘normal’. Coronavirus is not an excuse for disregarding [fire safety] responsibilities. Businesses must ensure that they have an adequate amount of competent people to help in the implementation of both preventative and protective fire safety measures.”

Eat Out to Help Out

In July, Government announced the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme. This is one of the financial initiatives put forward to entice customers back into the hospitality sector which has been adversely affected by lockdown measures in a substantial way. Business continuity has never been so important for these establishments and fire should not be a threat to people’s safety and livelihood in 2020 and beyond. This is especially the case in this sector, which needs to bounce back quickly to ensure survival. All safety measures should be scrutinised, with the mitigation of any risk from fire being absolutely crucial.

Back in 2018, BAFE launched its SP206 Kitchen Fire Protection Systems Scheme. This was designed to afford quality assurance of competency for contractors that provided design, installation, commissioning, maintenance and recharge services for kitchen fire suppression systems. The importance of SP206 cannot be understated as fires starting in commercial kitchens can cause major disruption to a business and may result in the total loss of a building, not overlooking the most important aspect of this issue being life safety. 

BAFE understands the urgency for these businesses to be back up-and-running in a fashion that’s as close to ‘normal’ as possible. With this, however, all life safety systems and provisions in place must be deemed adequate (with recently implemented COVID-19 safety measures in place) and appropriately maintained to protect staff and already cautious patrons. 

Responsibility to educate

At the start of this year, BAFE launched its latest campaign entitled ‘Don’t Just Specify, Verify!’ This has a clear focus on the consumers of fire safety-related services and how they should be demanding (and, importantly, checking) evidence of competency via UKAS-accredited third party certification.

While this campaign directly benefits BAFE-registered companies, it also extends to the wider safety industry’s constituents who are third party-certificated for multiple services. However, BAFE alone cannot change consumer behaviour overnight. The responsibility of the whole safety industry to educate current and potential clients alike remains paramount. This includes what measures (and ongoing maintenance) should be in place to meet obligations and what end users should be looking for when choosing a suitable contractor, even if that rules some companies out of transacting specific work.

While this may initially appear counterproductive to some, it’s only this level of integrity that will accelerate the fire safety industry to where it needs to be at a much faster pace. This will support the need to leave the unqualified and unregulated organisations in the past in a manner akin to that realised by the implementation of the Gas Safe Register. This then removes the headaches plaguing premises managers and will make fire safety a straightforward process, meaning there will be no hesitation on sourcing appropriate contractors for routine work or for new requirements. 

What’s more, as it’s being performed sooner, this work will safeguard businesses as best as possible from any mitigable fire risk. Removing or lessening this risk is a huge plus-point, of course, when it comes to the subject of business continuity.

Demanding competency

BAFE completely understands the current financial crisis that’s engulfing many businesses throughout the UK. While sympathetic to this situation, we cannot excuse any cost-cutting exercises when it comes to fire safety. Quite simply, demanding evidence of competency is a vital action to best protect business continuity from any unexpected events arising, with fire being among them.

Following on from the Grenfell Tower tragedy of 2017, Dame Judith Hackitt and the subsequent Competency Steering Group have stated multiple times that competency will be a major factor moving forward. In our opinion this should – and, indeed, we anticipate that it will – expand to encompass all buildings regardless of their use and ensure that competent contractors are being used for all types of buildings. Making sure this is right is particularly important amid a culture of cutbacks for the Fire and Rescue Service, many of which now demand confirmation of a fire regardless of an automatic alarm system being used to prompt attendance.

Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service notes on its website: “Fire alarm maintenance, false alarm reduction and procedures to identify false alarms are the responsibility of the premises’ ‘Responsible Person’. In some establishments, it’s estimated that over 70% of false alarms are resolvable alarms and due to human action.” With COVID-19 shifting the focus towards virus safety for businesses (eg in terms of premises’ layout), this is of high importance to ensure fire detection and fire alarm systems are still appropriate and will alert people as quickly as possible if there should be a blaze.

Don’t think NIMBY

Back in February on the BAFE website, we reported that The Law Society’s headquarters on central London’s Chancery Lane had suffered a substantial fire. Several people were led to safety as circa 150 firefighters battled the blaze at 10.40 pm on Saturday 1 February. The London Fire Brigade said that much of the roof and part of the fifth, fourth and third floors were alight. A junior lawyers division dinner had been taking place at the location. Around 28 people exited the building before the Emergency Services arrived and, thankfully, no-one was injured.

Tom Booton, head of corporate real estate for The Law Society, said at the time: “The London Fire Brigade has a priority to preserve life, then the building and then its contents. If you have safety plans in place and know your building, you’ll save lives and time and you’ll probably save more of your building and its contents. Do not think this could never happen to you.”

The last thing BAFE would wish to see is any business fall victim to fire, and especially so under the current circumstances. Booton’s advice is clear and we wholeheartedly endorse it. Don’t be complacent or disregard your fire safety as the focus remains on COVID-19 safety. All factors of Health and Safety must be acknowledged for the sake of people’s well-being and to protect businesses from potential ruin.

Stephen Adams is CEO of BAFE (www.bafe.org.uk)