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Checks and balances

01 March 2021

The Security Systems and Alarms Inspection Board (SSAIB) has always supported technical competence and absolutely backs the growth of apprenticeship programmes across the UK. Trevor Jenks focuses on why the organisation will continue to do so in times ahead

EVER SINCE its inception, the SSAIB has been inextricably linked to the technical competence demonstrated by SSAIB/BAFE-approved companies to meet the challenge of the fast-evolving technologies of the fire and emergency systems marketplace. It’s a marketplace increasingly under the public gaze in the wake of recent tragedies.

It’s also a marketplace that’s now proactively challenging the historical qualifications held within its workforce and is calling for truly technically competent and well-trained staff at all levels. The desire is to see members of staff working in a defined industry structure that begins with apprenticeships and moves up through the ranks to technical manager and beyond.

Within the pages of the damning report published in the wake of the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety, Dame Judith Hackitt challenges the industry to correct years of training neglect by providing and developing a structure for technical competence to be held and observed by all operatives. Across past decades, we’ve developed (and redeveloped) apprenticeships and qualifications in conjunction with awarding bodies, only for some of those organisations to then go their own way, turning their back on the work that they engaged in and reverting to their traditional – and, it must be said, mainly knowledge only-based – approach in parallel with its associated training-driven income.

We can all quote horror stories of the systems we’ve found to have been installed by engineers with dubious qualifications and the ‘quick buck’ companies who are here today and gone tomorrow. In drawing attention to the latter – and their life-endangering practices – we also draw attention to ourselves, highlighting the wider public’s concerns over our apparent lack of a commonly agreed industry competence standard.

If we’re honest with ourselves in the fire sector, the historically accepted qualifications are mainly knowledge-based, making it possible for individuals to gain them and list them on their CV without ever having done the job. It’s only when they are considered alongside other factors, such as approvals, etc, that they even come close to implying competence. This is a dangerous position to adopt as the foundation of any industry, let alone the fire systems industry (given that the latter is one in which lives depend on the competence of operatives at all levels and not an assumed competence and time served).

We must either build a fire – and security systems – industry fit for future purpose or be absorbed, once again, into the larger electrical industry. An industry where qualified, competence-tested electricians see both fire and security systems as just another electrical product. One that’s presently designed, fitted and maintained by an industry based on an assumption of competence and not proof of its existence.

Ongoing review

The Construction Industry Council rose to the challenge set by Dame Judith’s report, carrying out a wide-ranging and ongoing review designed to identify all existing qualifications in the construction industry – including the fire sector – and consider if they’re based on a true measurement of competence or on knowledge only. Also, do the present qualifications fit into an industry competence structure covering all levels?

Years ago, as an industry we started realising that the apprenticeship programme wasn’t meeting the needs of an increasingly technical sector. Qualifications, certifications, diplomas and NVQs, etc were developed for the apprenticeship programme, but then never actually applied to the rest of the existing workforce.

This process needed a different approach and resulted in the Fire, Emergency and Security Systems (FESS) Apprenticeship Standard – itself developed by the industry Employers’ Group in England and supported by both the Fire Industry Association (FIA) and the British Security Industry Association – being introduced just over three years ago. It defines the competence (and underpinning knowledge) required by a technician within the fire, emergency and security systems industries. It also creates a new fire industry apprenticeship which is now delivering the competent technicians of the future.

We can all share in the success of first-time apprentices completing the FESS apprenticeship. Independently assessed over two days encompassing practical and knowledge-based tests together with a professional discussion, the FESS Apprenticeship Standard is a measure of individual competence and a measurement that sets the bar across the industry, not just for apprentices.

With over 1,200 apprentices in the scheme – a number which continues to grow – the future is in good hands. The new FESS/Electrotechnical Certification Scheme (ECS) Gold card for technicians is additional proof of that assertion. This is an industry success story of which to be proud. We should make more of it. Even COVID-19 hasn’t slowed down the programme to any meaningful extent.

Today’s industry

We’ve taken large strides towards meeting the demand for the competent engineers of tomorrow, then, but what of the industry of today? What about the competence of all the time-served, experienced workplace installers, designers, maintainers and technical managers? How do they prove their competence in a world demanding reassurance from the fire systems industry? How do they measure up against the FESS benchmark?
Can they prove that competence simply by gaining the new FESS/ESC card? Are we going to continue to let anyone set up and operate a fire business almost without any questions being asked or checks undertaken?

The FESS Employers’ Group is working with the ECS Committee – including representatives from the SSAIB, the FIA, the Fire and Security Association and the National Security Inspectorate – to integrate the FESS Apprenticeship Standard with the ESC Health and Safety card scheme structure. This creates and defines a career progression within the industry right up to technical manager, in turn recognising three new levels of competence.

Everyone from system operatives to system technicians and, finally, technical managers can fit themselves into the structure. The addition of labourer, trainee and apprentices’ cards completes the scheme.

Some of those applying for the Health and Safety ESC card will have come across this and gained the labourer or the system operative card. Those renewing their gold card will have seen the FESS technician statement on it and will have had to meet the requirement for evidence of Continuing Professional Development, showing that they’ve kept themselves up-to-date with technical knowledge, standards and practice.

An experienced worker route to gaining the FESS technician gold card will be available in the next few months and round off the scheme, giving access to all within the industry to establish their competence.

True career path

At last, our industry has established a true career structure based on a nationally-recognised scheme by which, over the coming years, all individuals will be able to prove competence by showing their FESS/ECS card if asked to do so. This is a long, long way from the old ECS or Construction Skills Certification Scheme (CSCS) Health and Safety card that was needed for only some site works.

In some cases, this will mean that refresher knowledge training is needed to supplement practical field experience, but we should all support this direction of travel if it allows us to raise the bar within the industry and help prevent access to those who cannot meet the professional standards set. There’s a wealth of training providers who can fit their training around achieving this goal, rather than continue to argue that theirs “is the best”.

Following their success in lowering the costs of accidents in the construction industry with the CSCS scheme, insurers may also start to insist on proof of employee competence for the design, installation, commissioning and maintenance of systems. This may even be reflected in their premiums as the industry upskills and the insurers reap the benefits of reduced pay-outs. They may also use the non-existence of proof of competence when taking action to settle claims.

The Inspectorates will be ‘encouraged’ to use this defined ‘FESS Standard’ of engineering competence and the FESS/ECS structure to audit against when companies seek initial or continued approval. In turn, the Inspectorates will include this in the criteria for approved companies over time as the industry implements and evolves the competence structure.

Competence is already in the standards alongside training, but the former is assumed by the audit of the finished system being compliant. Some are already raising this question in the public domain as training organisations compete to win busiesses.

Just as importantly, concerned clients – especially so those in the public sector – will take the lead from Government, increasingly insisting on proof of competence being held by (initially) fire company staff, but also security systems company employees when placing orders. Other industries openly encourage clients to check qualifications and claims of approval. The companies in those industries who can meet the requirement certainly don’t hold that information back when tendering, so why would this not be the case across our industry as we drive out the cowboys?

Stepping forward

The UK fire and security systems industries – including the recognised intruder, access control and CCTV disciplines – are poised to take the step forward and become recognised, professionally structured and competent industries duly equipped to face the challenges of the future.

There are, of course, fine details to be discussed and questions to be asked and answered in the coming year before the Inspectorates are ‘encouraged’ to use the outlined engineering competence structure to audit against when companies seek approval or continued approval.

Despite COVID-19’s efforts to disrupt, the fire and security industries have continued to function, often outside the public’s gaze. A public that feels safe in buildings covered by fire systems, protected by intruder alarms, safeguarded by access control and monitored by CCTV. However, all of this is underpinned by a perceived competence that’s now rightly being subjected to increased scrutiny by a questioning public.

As an industry, we can no longer sit on the sidelines and watch the world go by, setting competence standards for the apprenticeships programme while blatantly ignoring those practitioners comprising the rest of the workforce.

The industry must urgently invest in upskilling its workforce and match job roles with the requirements of the new competence-based structure. This is the only way in which it will meet the technical challenges that the evolving integrated systems industry brings and – just as importantly – regain the public’s confidence in it as an entity.

If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is that we are most certainly a key industry sector in the UK ready to continue to act in difficult times and do the job. Now is the time to make solid plans. Now is the time to invest in our workforce and build the truly professional industry of tomorrow.

Trevor Jenks is Training Manager at the SSAIB (www.ssaib.org)