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Beyond COVID-19

01 March 2021

In the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and with the myriad impacts of Brexit already beginning to be felt, Paul Pope explores some of the key challenges facing the UK’s fire sector and pinpoints various ways in which the latter can ably and determinedly prepare for the future

THE UNPRECEDENTED impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has inevitably placed a huge strain on the fire safety sector. Here in the UK, it’s the combination of the Coronavirus and Brexit that will leave an indelible mark on those who’ve continued to operate as normal during these undoubtedly trying times. 

Manufacturers, distributors, installers and end user customers alike have, of course, had to change the way in which they work to ensure full compliance with COVID-19 restrictions. At Global Fire Equipment (GFE), this has meant putting in place a number of practical measures at our manufacturing facility to ensure the safety of our employees. We’ve also stepped-up support for our distributors and their customers to help them achieve business continuity throughout the pandemic and in the wake of Brexit. 

For European Union (EU)-based fire safety solution manufacturers who currently trade with the UK, there are now a number of practical implications associated with delivering products into the UK, from delays at border crossings to supply management challenges and new exporting regulations. 

As things currently stand, it doesn’t look as though import tariffs will be introduced, so EU-based manufacturers will be able to continue trading with the UK at non-tariffed prices for the foreseeable future. This will help to ensure price stability. However, the costs of importing into the UK will rise so there are also financial implications. It’s possible that some EU-based manufacturers may choose to focus on other markets. We’ve taken steps to mitigate the impact of Brexit by increasing the volume of stock we hold in the UK, opening a new regional office and overhauling our distribution partners.

UKCA marking

Without doubt, though, the one Brexit-related change that could have the most significant impact on fire detection manufacturers, both here in the UK and indeed overseas, is the introduction of the UK Conformity Assessed (UKCA) marking. For those readers of Fire Safety Matters not yet fully aware, this is a new UK product mark used for goods being placed on the market in England, Wales and Scotland. UKNI marking is required for Northern Ireland.

UKCA marking covers most goods previously requiring the CE mark. With effect from 1 January 2021, most UK and EU manufacturers selling their products into the UK will have just 12 months to apply for their products to be certified and given a UKCA mark by an approved UK certification body. It’s important to note that the current EU Construction Products Regulation (CPR) marking will continue to be used in England, Wales and Scotland until 1 January next year. Northern Ireland will continue to use the EU CPR alongside the UKNI marking.

It’s fair to say that the introduction of UKCA marking has prompted widespread concern across all affected industries. In my own role as a Board member of the Fire Industry Association (FIA), I’ve added my concerns to those shared by my FIA peers about the negative impact the implementation of the new UKCA mark will have. In my role as Group business development director of an EU-based fire detection solutions manufacturer, I’m equally passionate about the far-reaching implications this new legislation realises. 

In short, I’m all for legislation that improves product standards, but the UKCA mark currently has nothing to do with improving product standards. In my opinion, it’s an expensive and unnecessary paperwork-focused exercise as the current EN54 standards are unchanged.

The cost implications for manufacturers are vast. Fire safety systems may have 50-plus products as part of their make-up and manufacturers will have to pay for each individual product to be re-certificated. Re-certification alone could amount to tens of thousands of pounds. Manufacturers will also have to cover the additional costs associated with changing the paperwork, the product mark and the packaging for every product they produce.

Conversely, if UK manufacturers wish to export to the EU, they will have to spend vast sums paying for the UKCA or UKNI and also for the CE marks as part of the EN54 standard, thereby effectively paying twice for certification.

Unrealistic timeframe

Further, the timeframe of just 12 months is completely unrealistic and I fully support the FIA’s view that this should be extended to three years. The expectations on fire detection and alarm manufacturers are unreasonable to say the least, not to mention the fact that all of this is to be undertaken during a global pandemic.

It’s vital to recognise that the UKCA and UKNI marks are general marks as opposed to fire safety marks and will not be recognised within the EU market. In Europe, and in other territories further afield, fire detection and alarm products must comply with the essential safety and performance requirements of EN54 and the EU CPR (and, therefore, must be CE-marked to be legally sold or placed on the European market).

In addition to the far-reaching ramifications of the UKCA marking, there’s another certification issue that must also be addressed, and that is the inconsistent approach used in some countries when specifying fire detection and alarm products. This tends to be the case in those countries that don’t have their own standards and are merely implementing other national or international standards. 

Performance specifications in Europe must state that the products have to meet the relevant EN54 product standards. Product testing, inspection and certification must be carried out by an EU Notified Body. By way of comparison, in some countries it has become common practice to name a chosen ‘approval’ or ‘approval body’ on performance specifications as the sole mark of product certification or compliance. This misunderstanding of the EN54 certification process can have significant consequences.

In the case of fire detection products, some of these schemes are promoted within the system performance specification and, as such, may be perceived as the only route to compliance (as indeed we’ve witnessed in some countries). Rather, the only performance route to EN54 compliance is via a Notified Body certifying the fact that specific products meet the requirements of the relevant EN54 standards.

Issues to be tackled

Despite the challenges that COVID-19 and Brexit continue to present, we need to look ahead to the future of the UK’s fire industry. There is light at the end of the tunnel, but there’s still much work to be transacted.

It’s widely accepted within the industry that there’s a need to improve the standards of those responsible for installing and servicing fire detection equipment. Doing so will have the knock-on impact of improving the effectiveness of fire safety systems overall. Some progress has been made in this regard, but there’s more that can be done.

At GFE, we’re playing our part in the drive to improve standards by establishing the GFE Academy, which we plan to launch later this year. In addition to developing new training resources, we’re collaborating with our network of international distributors to develop a partnership programme which will see in-territory training on design, installation techniques and standards offered to our customers and our customers’ customers wherever they are in the world. In the UK, for example, our training offer will be delivered by Global Fire UK.

The intention is for many of the courses to be Continuing Professional Development-accredited, which we know will be welcomed by our customers. 

Another issue that the UK fire sector needs to address is the requirement for greater diversity and equality, especially so in terms of encouraging more women into the sector. As at 31 March 2020, 7% (ie 2,461) of firefighters were female. That’s an increase from 4.7% (1,783) in 2015 so, on the front line, we’re seeing a gradual uptick in the numbers of female firefighters.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the engineering side of the sector. Although the exact statistics are not available, it#s likely that the fire sector will be reflective of the wider UK engineering industry which, at less than 10%, harbours the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe, while Latvia, Bulgaria and Cyprus lead with nearly 30%.

We simply must do more to encourage more female participation in the sector. We should be actively engaging with young women to enter the UK fire sector through school STEM initiatives, apprenticeships and further education opportunities. This is most definitely an area that the UK fire industry must  turn its attention towards and address sooner rather than later.

Elephant in the room

Another key issue which has been sidelined while COVID-19 and Brexit are being addressed is that of environmental sustainability. 

Our managing director Joao Paulo Ajami is passionate about environmental sustainability and GFE has been at the forefront of the adoption of sustainable business practices since its inception, including being an early adopter of energy conservation and alternative energy sourcing policies. A good example of this is our significant use of solar panels for our manufacturing facility’s electricity needs.

Joao Paulo believes that good environmental sense makes good business sense. I couldn’t agree more. Following a recent investment in more advanced plastic moulding technology, we asked some of our engineers to re-engineer the old plant into a new role, thus avoiding WEEE wastes. 

Later on in 2021, GFE will also be making a multi-million Euro investment in a new manufacturing plant later. Joao Paulo sees this as another opportunity to increase sustainability. With our impending move to new premises, we’ll be staying close to our present site on the outskirts of São Brás in the Algarve. We’ll be introducing new environmental management systems over the next few years, including significantly increasing our use of photovoltaic energy generation which is so abundant in the southern region of Portugal.

During this current period of significant change, we’ve recognised the need for strong regional focus. Brexit has forced us to identify what’s key to GFE as a business and that includes having a strong presence here in the UK which is an extremely important market for us. Indeed, some of our products – for example the new G-One panel – have been designed specifically with the needs of the UK market in mind.

Paul Pope is Group Business Development Director at Global Fire Equipment (www.globalfire-equipment.com)