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Fire Risk Assessors: Time to Join Forces?

07 March 2022

DO WE need an Institute of Fire Risk Assessors? If we bring together accredited fire risk assessors (ie the very people the Government will focus on as examples to the rest), argues Warren Spencer, then their voice becomes stronger, both in an advisory capacity and from a negotiating perspective.

Back in May 2018, shortly before the publication of Dame Judith Hackitt’s report on the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety, I wrote an article entitled ‘Fire risk assessors: time to come together as one?. The article was written due to my concern that fire risk assessors as a group did not appear to me to have a consistent representative voice in relation to the issues of competency and accreditation. Issues which were later confirmed, in fact, as findings and recommendations in the final Hackitt report.

That final report details how the regulatory system covering high-rise and complex buildings was not fit for purpose. Chapter 5 specifically focuses on the competence agenda. While I fully accept that the remit of Dame Judith’s review was limited to high-rise and complex buildings, I believe it would be a blatant missed opportunity if the issues of competence, regulation and accreditation were not discussed and considered in the wider context of all buildings.

The report recommends – in Section 5.2 – that: “The professional and accreditation bodies working within the construction and fire safety sectors should continue the work started in response to the interim report and present a coherent proposal to Government within one year. As a minimum, this proposal should cover the role and remit of an overarching body to provide oversight of competence requirements and support the delivery of competent people working on high-rise residential buildings.”

Following on from the recommendations contained in the report, the Fire Safety Bill has now, of course, become the Fire Safety Act 2021 and the Building Safety Bill has now had its second reading in Parliament. It’s anticipated that the second tranche of amendments to the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order will come via the Building Safety Bill which is anticipated to be enacted in 2023.

Specifically in relation to the risk assessment process, the amendments will include the following requirements:

*where the ‘Responsible Person’ appoints an individual to make or review the fire risk assessment, that individual must be competent to do so

*all ‘Responsible Persons’ must record their completed fire risk assessment

*for all regulated premises in England and Wales, ‘Responsible Persons’ must record the name of the individual and the organisation engaged by them to undertake any (or all) of the fire risk assessment process

Within the Government’s response to the fire safety consultation, it’s interesting to read that: “In the first instance, it’s proposed that the new building safety regime applies to high-rise residential buildings of 18 metres and above or more than six storeys (whichever is reached first).”

The use of the phrase “in the first instance” suggests to me that similar principles will be applied across the board once the necessary political reaction to the Grenfell Tower disaster has been rolled out.

Taking matters forward

As was the case in 2018, I still see no evidence – of likelihood – of the professional bodies who presently accredit and ‘represent’ fire risk assessors coming together to take matters forward. The present accreditation schemes have up to one thousand accredited assessors on their registers. However, these numbers are divided between four or five schemes such that no individual register has sufficient critical mass to ‘lead the way’.

In addition, there still appear to be historic disagreements, ideologies and personality clashes, which are preventing any sensible discussion as to the way forward. I cannot see that there’s one professional body responsible for looking after the sole interests of fire risk assessors, whether accredited or qualified through experience as fire safety officers or as a result of industry training.

At present, there are numerous associations, institutes and consortiums such as the Institution of Fire Engineers, the Institute of Fire Safety Managers, the Fire Protection Association, the Fire Industry Association, the Institute of Fire Prevention Officers and the British Fire Consortium (I could go on) with an interest in taking this issue forward. As individual bodies, all of these organisations might well independently represent hundreds of fire risk assessors, but do the latter need a cohesive voice as one?

In short, do we need an Institute of Fire Risk Assessors? If we bring together the accredited fire risk assessors (ie the very people the Government will hold out as examples to the rest), then their one voice becomes stronger, both in an advisory capacity and from a negotiating perspective.

If I was a fire risk assessor, I would be asking what my representative association, institution or consortium is doing for me at the present moment and, more importantly, what it will do for me in the future.

In my experience, the appetite of Fire and Rescue Services to pursue enforcement against fire risk assessors and fire risk assessment companies has not abated. If anything, and if my Inbox is anything to go by, it has increased.

In my humble opinion, reputable fire risk assessors continue to be underpaid for the value they bring to the process of making people safe, while they’re also largely unprotected from potential culpability under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005.

‘Suitable and sufficient’

There’s no definition or case law to assist us with defining what a ‘suitable and sufficient’ fire risk assessment looks like. I’m aware of the PAS 79 guidance, but that doesn’t deal with the extent of the risk assessor’s retainer, the extent to which sampling is acceptable or the fire risk assessor’s position when the ‘Responsible Person’ doesn’t provide full information or access in relation to the premises. Most importantly, it doesn’t deal with the degree to which the ‘opinion’ of the fire risk assessor in determining risk can be justified when challenged by a fire officer with a different assessment of risk.

It seems to me that, if a fire enforcement officer adopts a different view in respect of risk in relation to the premises then the fire risk assessor is vulnerable, not only to criticism, but also to enforcement action, prosecution and, ultimately, a prison sentence.

It’s in these situations that I would expect the fire risk assessor’s representative institution to step in and provide assistance and support. When a police officer’s conduct is challenged, the Police Federation is there to support the officer throughout the whole process of investigation and representation. A Trade Union acts in the same way to protect employees.

My experience is that fire risk assessors are left unsupported and have to navigate the enforcement process – and, very often, the prosecution process – on their own, battling against the court and a respected Fire and Rescue Service/enforcing authority. The best that they can do is seek out expert opinion to support them, but this is rarely enough to persuade the court that the fire officer may have been wrong in their own assessment.

“Hypocrisy!” I hear you cry. “You have prosecuted fire risk assessors yourself.” Indeed I have, and I make no excuse for it, but I’m concerned that the emphasis may now shift from prosecuting ‘the cowboys’ (I have no qualms with that) to questioning the work of experienced and appropriately qualified and accredited fire risk assessors who have merely reached different conclusions than fire enforcement officers in relation to risk.

There now appears to be a demand for the perfect fire risk assessment, with anything less being considered criminal. As it was in May 2018, my point is that if we start going after the people who are genuinely try to make us safe, who will be willing to make us safer in the future?

Standing as one

For this reason, it’s essential that fire risk assessors stand as one and have their voice heard when the Government comes to decide what ‘competency’ looks like and, thereafter, when their competency might be challenged.

Will the institutions, associations, federations and consortiums stand together with their members or will they fear for their reputation and distance themselves from any potential negativity?

In my view, the time has come for these organisations to join forces in properly representing fire risk assessors and take part in the consultation process as one body and, thereafter, in the implementation of those recommendations deemed necessary and which require fire industry expertise and experience. Otherwise, regulation will be imposed from those outside of the industry.

The Government would surely prefer to work with an industry which agrees with the regulations to be imposed and it would have to listen if this particular sector chose to speak with one collective voice.

Warren Spencer is Managing Director of Blackhurst Budd Solicitors (www.blackhurstbudd.co.uk)

Digital Seminar: Is the fire risk assessor’s voice being heard?

Fire Safety Matters has partnered with Blackhurst Budd Solicitors to organise a ‘must-attend’ digital seminar on the subject of identifying who is a competent fire risk assessor and protecting them from enforcement action.

The Building Safety Bill, which is currently making its way through the Houses of Parliament, will require fire risk assessors to be ‘competent’. Relevant risk assessments will have to be recorded and the names of the assessors logged.

In 2019, Dame Judith Hackitt advised that professional and accreditation bodies working within the construction and fire safety sectors put forward a proposal which “should cover the role and remit of an overarching body to provide oversight of competence requirements”.

With more and more enforcement action and criminal investigations now involving fire risk assessments, the digital seminar will pose – and seek to answer – a fundamental question: ‘Will the humble fire risk assessor be properly represented and protected?’

The two-hour online seminar, which runs on Friday 11 March at 10.00 am, will focus on topics including the potential impact of the Building Safety Bill on fire risk assessors and the assessment of ‘competency’.

Several key questions will be asked and answered. Will the various institutes, associations and consortiums adequately protect their fire risk assessor members? Will the fire risk assessor’s voice be heard or will legislation simply be imposed upon them without adequate consultation?

Western Business Media’s CEO Mark Sennett – the founder of Fire Safety Matters magazine – will chair the digital seminar. The event features contributions from Warren Spencer (managing director at Blackhurst Budd Solicitors), James Aird (solicitor at Blackhurst Budd) and invited representatives from the various fire sector organisations.

The digital seminar will discuss the way forward for fire risk assessors and assess whether radical action is required in order to provide adequate protection from criminal culpability in the future.

Delegate places for this digital conference are limited and priced at £99+VAT per ticket.

*Digital Seminar: ‘Is the fire risk assessor’s voice being heard?’ Friday 11 March at 10.00 am. Further information and registration is available online

**Fire Risk Assessments: Enforcement or Profit?