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New legislation set to create “perfect storm” for fire risk assessors

18 May 2022

IN TANDEM with the building owners and safety managers who employ them, fire risk assessors now face additional challenges when it comes to satisfying new legal requirements designed to meet fire safety competency standards that have come into force with commencement of the Fire Safety Act 2021, and which will increase still further now that the Building Safety Bill has achieved Royal Assent to become the Building Safety Act 2022. That’s the firm belief of the Fire Sector Federation.

The Fire Safety Act, which is now in force, realises a significant change. The legislation requires that a building’s external walls be considered as part of any fire risk assessment. It’s a change that has been much debated. The Building Safety Act goes further still, placing a clear duty on ‘Accountable Persons’ and ‘Responsible Persons’ to confirm the competency of any fire risk assessor whom they appoint to assist them in undertaking a building fire risk assessment.

Unfortunately, there remains a lack of detailed definition around the term ‘competent’, which then puts these ‘duty holders’ under considerable pressure to make the correct choices. The Fire Safety Act contains no action to stop the unsatisfactory practice of allowing unqualified individuals to assess fire risk.

That last point is precisely why the Fire Sector Federation has referenced this situation as ‘an opportunity missed’ given that a more robust approach to competence could have been stated. Simply mandating fire risk assessors to measure up to assured industry standards – or specifying third party assurance as a practical way in which to guide building owners and safety managers in terms of their selection of fire risk assessors with the appropriate level of competence – remains an omission from the point of view of being a safeguard for members of the public.

How long should a situation where ‘fire risk assessors’ who are not part of any third party scheme or professional body (and, therefore, unable to adequately demonstrate competence to a client) be allowed to continue?

Significant capacity and capability concerns are also being voiced across the housing and building sectors. The need to meet likely demands arising from the new legislation is already upon the sector at a time when practising fire risk assessors are facing issues around professional indemnity insurance. In some cases, the situation is so bad that assessors say they’re leaving the market because of premium increases linked to constraints on cover.

Practical way forward

Dennis Davis, executive officer at the Fire Sector Federation, said: “Those accountable for building and fire safety, including fire risk assessors operating without clearly demonstrable competency, need to make sure they’re ready now. They must fully understand the implications of demonstrating compliance with their obligations under the new legislation. Using existing third party assurance schemes that demonstrate fire risk assessors are competent is a practical way forward for clients. Joining such schemes or engaging with those organisations developing standards will allow qualified professionals to show they’re competent. It’s a way forward for contractors.”

Davis continued: “We need to face up to these challenges if we are to avoid a ‘perfect storm’ in the fire risk assessor sector which could undermine fire safety in our buildings.”

The Fire Sector Federation has committed to developing a range of resources to support the continued progression of competency in this area, in turn helping the sector to meet its obligations. The organisation will soon publish a new industry standard for the general fire risk assessor that establishes three competency levels matched to three generic types of building risk. Widescale adoption will be encouraged in order to mitigate the negative impacts that continue within what Davis references as “an unsatisfactory and unregulated situation”.

Working with member companies, the Fire Sector Federation has developed guidance designed for fire risk assessors and building owners. The guidance is free to download from the Federation’s website and includes ‘A Guide to Choosing a Fire Risk Assessor’, ‘Advice for Fire Safety Managers’, ‘Approved Code of Practice for Fire Risk Assessors’ Competency’ and a ‘Safe Escape Checklist’. A free-to-access national list of those fire risk assessors who are qualified to industry standards is also available on the website.

*For further information visit www.firesectorfederation.co.uk