Engineers of Tomorrow
19 January 2021
Training and competence within the construction sector and related industries have been brought into sharp focus in the wake of Dame Judith Hackitt’s Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety conducted in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower tragedy. What do the desired outcomes look like for the security and fire systems markets? Trevor Jenks outlines the detail
Early last year, I made the following statement: “Security Systems and Alarms Inspection Board (SSAIB) certification has always been linked to the technical competence demonstrated by SSAIB-approved companies to meet the challenge of the fast-evolving technologies of today’s security and emergency systems market. A challenge that increasingly calls for technically competent and trained staff at all levels.” No-one could have predicted either the COVID-19 pandemic that followed, nor the strides our industry would take to establish a competence-based career structure designed to underpin its future
Despite the ravages wrought by the Coronavirus, the Fire, Emergency and Security Systems (FESS) apprenticeship scheme developed as part of the Government’s Trailblazer initiative has gone from strength to strength, with SSAIB-registered companies making those all-important investments in apprentices today that will meet tomorrow’s demand for competent engineers. The growing number of providers starting courses is also making the FESS apprenticeship more local. As we begin to see the first apprentices completing their three-year courses, we can all celebrate their success.
In Scotland and Wales, similar apprenticeship programmes continue to meet industry needs. In Northern Ireland, meanwhile, its own new apprenticeship programme – developed by the Northern Ireland Fire and Security Employers Federation – has replaced the old City & Guilds scheme in a determined bid to meet the ongoing needs of the province.
We can all look forward to the first apprentices completing their four-year study programme, in turn adding to the UK’s pool of fire, emergency and security systems technicians. All are real success stories that should be celebrated and about which our industry should be justly proud.
As an industry, we have certainly made strides during the last 12 months to meet the demand for the competent engineers of tomorrow, but what of the industry of today? What about the competence of all the time-served, experienced workplace installers, designers, maintainers and technical managers within our sector? How do they prove their competence, and not just their knowledge, in a world demanding reassurance of an industry wherein anyone can set up a business and operate almost without question or any checking process being conducted?
We can all quote horror stories of the systems we’ve found, installers with dubious backgrounds and the ‘fast buck’ companies who are here today and gone tomorrow. However, in drawing attention to what can be life-endangering practices, do we also draw attention to ourselves and highlight the concerns of how we will cope with the technology of tomorrow? Without a sound technical foundation, we must either build a fire and security industry fit for future purpose or be absorbed – once again, it must be noted – into the larger electrical industry. One that views what we do as being centred on just another electrical product being fitted by mainly unqualified staff.
Dame Judith Hackitt’s damming report on the tragedy at Grenfell Tower openly challenged the construction sector and associated industries to correct years of training neglect by providing and developing a structure of technical competence for and among all practising operatives. The Construction Industry Council has subsequently risen to that challenge, duly conducting a wide-ranging and ongoing review process designed to identify all existing qualifications in the construction industry – encompassing our sector within the mix – and consider in detail if they’re based on a true measurement of competence or around knowledge only.
In our industry, qualifications are for the most part knowledge-based, making it possible to gain a qualification without ever having actually done the job. It’s only when considered alongside other factors – such as approvals, etc – that matters draw closer to implying competence. This is a dangerous position to adopt as the foundation for any industry sector.
Developed by the industry employers’ group in England, the FESS apprenticeship standard defines the competence and underpinning knowledge required by a technician. Tested at the end of the apprenticeship through a combined two-day knowledge/practical test and supported by an employer statement, the apprenticeship standards sets out the competence required for a technician operating in our industry.
When further combined with the Health and Safety requirements of the Electrotechnical Certification Scheme (ECS) card, it has created a new FESS/ECS Gold technicians’ card as proof of competence. That card can be shown on demand. This forms the defined point from where a structure recognising three new levels of competence is now in place.
It has created and defined a career progression route within the industry up to the level of technical manager. Everyone can fit themselves into the structure from system operative through to system technician and, finally, the role of technical manager. The addition of labourer, trainee and apprentice cards completes the ECS scheme. All cards have been available for the last few months.
Those individuals applying for their ESC Health and Safety site card will have come across this and gained the labourer or system operative card. Those renewing their Gold card will have seen the FESS technician statement on it and the requirement for evidence of Continuing Professional Development.
An experienced worker route towards gaining the system technician Gold card will be available in the next few months and complete the scheme, realising the ability for all within the industry to establish their competence.
Our industry has finally established a true career structure for technicians based on a nationally recognised scheme which, over the coming years, can be used by all individuals to demonstrate their competence by showing their FESS/ECS card when asked to do so. This is a long, long way removed from the old ECS or the Health and Safety-focused Construction Skills Certification Scheme (CSCS) card required only for some site works.
In some cases, the new regime may well mean that some refresher knowledge training is needed to supplement the practical experience already gained. However, we should all support such a move if it allows us to raise the bar within the security industry of the future and help prevent access to those who cannot meet the professional standards being set.
Concerned by the pressures being exerted on their budgets, the police service and the Fire and Rescue Service may view such an industry-required competence structure as the next step forward in their own determination to drive down unwanted alarm activations for approved companies accessing their services. The former has already shown its intent in this regard by requiring proof of competence in Secure by Design installation requirements.
Following its success in lowering the costs of accidents in the construction industry with the CSCS scheme, the insurance sector may start to insist on proof of employee competence when it comes to security system design, installation, commissioning and maintenance – and even encourage it in premiums – as the security industry upskills. Of course, insurers might also choose to use the non-existence of such proof when taking action in a bid to settle claims.
All will almost certainly encourage the security-focused inspectorates to use this defined engineering competence structure to audit against when companies seek approval – or continued approval – by updating their criteria for inspectorates and approved companies over time as the industry duly implements and evolves the competence structure.
Increasingly, concerned clients – especially those operating in the public sector and taking their lead from central Government – will start insisting on proof of competence held by, initially, fire safety-focused companies (but also, through time, security systems companies) when placing their orders.
Other industries openly encourage clients to check qualifications and claims of approval. The companies who can meet the necessary requirements certainly don’t hold back that information in any way when tendering, so why should this not be the case across the security industry wherein there’s a stated desire to drive out the cowboy element?
The UK’s fire and security systems industries – encompassing the intruder alarm, access control and CCTV disciplines, among others – are poised to take that much-needed step forward into a recognised, professionally structured and competent environment wherein they’ll be fully-equipped to face the challenges of the future. That’s a scenario of which we can all be proud.
Upskilling the workforce
At some point, the inspectorates will be given an engineering competence structure to audit against when companies seek approval or continued approval. Despite the enforced disruption exerted by COVID-19, the fire and security industries have continued to operate diligently – often out of the public gaze – and provide peace of mind for its clients. Clients who feels safe in buildings protected by fire safety systems, intruder alarms, access control or the latest CCTV technology.
Dame Judith Hackitt Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety has brought the industry into the public’s gaze. We have necessarily had to take a detailed look at what’s under the bonnet and define what degree of competence is required and for what specific roles.
We’ve seen the first of the new breed of FESS technicians complete their apprenticeships and meet the needs of the industry’s future. As an industry, we can no longer sit on the sidelines and watch the world go by, setting competence standards for the apprenticeship programme while blatantly ignoring the rest of the workforce.
That being the case, the industry must urgently invest in upskilling its workforce, matching job roles to the requirements of its new competence-based structure. That’s the only way forward if we’re to meet both the technical challenges that the evolving integrated systems industry brings and, just as importantly, regain (and retain) the general public’s confidence in it.
If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that we are a key industry in the UK. One that’s ready and willing to continue to act in difficult times and make sure the job is done. Now is the time to plan for tomorrow. Now is also the time to invest in our workforce and build a truly professional industry.
As an organisation, the SSAIB has always supported technical competence and backs the growth of apprenticeship programmes across the UK. What’s more, we will continue to do so in what’s now an increasingly high-tech world.
Trevor Jenks is Training Manager at the Security Systems and Alarms Inspection Board (www.ssaib.org)