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CROSS UK reports on worrying lack of fire safety competence in care homes

08 April 2024

COLLABORATIVE REPORTING for Safer Structures (CROSS) UK – the confidential reporting system which allows professionals working in the built environment to air their views on fire and structural safety issues – has reported that an unnamed Fire and Rescue Service is concerned about the lack of competence of maintenance personnel working in care homes. This follows on from two incidents where poor electrical and fire door maintenance put residents at risk.

The reporter highlights that the lives of vulnerable residents rely heavily upon many critical fire safety elements: the competent management of systems, staff and procedures, well-trained care staff to carry out an evacuation in the event of a fire and a properly maintained fire safety premises infrastructure.

It emerges that the reporter is concerned maintenance personnel working in care homes are carrying out works for which they’re not qualified to transact, nor competent to do, and duly provides two example incidents.

The first incidence was an electrical installation found to be faulty following an emergency call to a care home specialising in end-of-life and palliative care. The firefighters on scene discovered that the electrical connections for a light fitting had been shorting, causing overheating and smoke.

The installation was later confirmed by a qualified electrician to have been clearly undertaken by an unqualified individual. The reporter states that the ‘Responsible Person’ for this and four other care homes was sent an official letter reminding them of their responsibilities under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005. They were urged to investigate who was responsible for the dangerous works and urgently request they review the wiring in all premises where this maintenance person had worked.

The letter also recommended that the ‘Responsible Person’ suggest to the maintenance worker that they do not attempt any further work for which they were not qualified or competent.

Inadequate fire door remediation

The second incidence occurred following a fire safety inspection in a care home for residents aged over 65. One of the recommendations of the initial inspection was to upgrade the fire doors by fitting them with intumescent strips and cold smoke seals.

A follow-up inspection of the remedial works found that the intumescent strips and cold smoke seals were incorrectly fitted to the door frame. The combined strip and seals were fitted to a channel that was routed incorrectly into the corner of the frame. The reporter suggests that, in the event of a fire, the intumescent strip would swell and effectively lever the door open, allowing the passage of fire and smoke into the means of escape and, as a direct result, compromising the evacuation.

The door and frame were described as ‘relatively old, but substantial, and (if the combined strip and seal had been fitted correctly) would likely have given the level of protection required. Instead, they lost integrity and are now deemed unfit for purpose.

Ultimately, the reporter is concerned that unqualified maintenance personnel are carrying out repairs to safety-critical systems and installations with the potential for serious injury or even loss of life.

Both safety cases appear to have arisen due to the lack of competence and knowledge of the maintenance personnel involved, and a similar lack of knowledge in the managers who permitted them to carry out the repairs.

The reporter suggests the underlying cause is either “well-meaning maintenance personnel and naïve managers allowing unqualified people to carry out repairs to essential fire safety infrastructure or an attempt to save money”.

The reporter has addressed these issues locally under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (as amended). However, they also wish to express “grave concerns” to the care sector in general that some of the most vulnerable people in our society are living in premises where they are not as safe as they should be.

Expert Panel’s comments

According to the Expert Panel, a structured and effective fire safety management regime under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (as amended) is critical to the safety of vulnerable residents.

The Expert Panel has expressed clear concern regarding the management and maintenance of care homes, so too the lack of understanding of what’s required to maintain fire safety. These two incidents exemplify the issue of managers employing a general maintenance worker to undertake safety-critical tasks.

There was an apparent lack of competence from the maintenance personnel who undertook such installations. They failed to display sufficient competence to perform the tasks appropriately or, indeed, identify that they should not even be attempting them.

Care home providers undoubtedly face challenges in maintaining compliance with every area of their responsibility. However, the financial issues facing care home providers should not mean that they have such critical work done cheaply and compromise on competence.

There’s a critical need for competent staff and personnel across the care sector, asserts the Expert Panel, as it’s sometimes these smaller issues that can align to create a far bigger – and potentially tragic - incident.

Competence of fire risk assessors

A competent fire risk assessor critically challenging installation, testing and maintenance records should uncover these failings. The Expert Panel points to some Best Practice outlined by the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority, the care home regulator in Northern Ireland, including the requirement for all fire risk assessments in care homes (including residential and nursing homes) to be undertaken by fire risk assessors holding third party accreditation.

Further, there’s an ongoing duty for both the Fire and Rescue Service and care home regulators to continue to explain the issues, the potential consequences (such as injury, death and also legal repercussions) and the expected standards.

Care homes are high-risk occupancies where staff competence is critical. This means that, where there’s high staff turnover, ‘Responsible Persons’ may need to continually assess, train and confirm the understanding among members of staff when it comes to their roles under the local fire safety regime.

For their part, the care regulators should ensure that consideration of fire safety matters is included within an inspection regime. It’s suggested that a campaign orchestrated by Fire and Rescue Services and the respective UK care regulators could be developed to target the ‘Responsible Persons’ of care homes, offering advice on their responsibilities and how to manage fire safety. This would need to be well structured to ensure it’s easy to navigate and cover specific topics.

If the Fire and Rescue Service takes enforcement action, this needs to be publicised to raise awareness and learning across the industry. It’s believed that the care regulator would likely be the best conduit for this communication.