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Speaking for the sector - September 2019

27 August 2019

We all need to play our part in ensuring fire safety is on the right track, says Dennis Davis.

SOMETIMES IT feels like we’re still not on the right track. The fire safety quality of our buildings again came under scrutiny following two total loss fires in modern buildings in early August. The first in Crewe Cheshire involved a retirement home, the second in Bristol a national chain hotel. 

Fortunately in both cases there was no immediate loss of life, although the trauma suffered by over hundred elderly residents living in what they expected to be their comfortable and safe home will have been quite intense. The specific circumstances of the time of day and time of year when the outbreaks happened was no doubt an important part of this outcome being lunchtime and early afternoon in the summer; makes you shudder thinking about it happening on a dark winter’s night.

There is of cause a great deal going on to improve the quality in question. The government’s consultation on proposals ‘Building a Safer Future’ and review of the ‘Fire Safety Order’ have just closed. The Construction Industry Council on behalf of the joint efforts made by many in the fire and construction sectors who together acted in concert as the Competency Steering Group published the interim report ‘Raising the Bar’ aiming to start a wide consultation on lifting competency to a higher level across the board. There’s certainly been plenty of summer reading to digest and consider.

Unfortunately, despite this positive mood there also disquiet around implementing improvements. Parliament’s Housing Communities and Local Government Select Committee which published in its own report ‘Building Regulations and fire safety’ has been less than complimentary about what has actually happened since the Grenfell Tower fire, again questioning in late July Housing Minister Kit Malthouse and Dame Judith Hackitt about progress. This is a concern shared by the Fire Sector Federation which made its own call to get a move on at the two year anniversary of the tragedy. 

So much so we wrote to the Select Committee chair supporting the Committee’s action and raising key matters in the government’s proposals. Matters like clarity on buildings out of scope; the lack of detail surrounding the role of new regulators; and the wisdom of telescoping prescription, functionality and safety case frameworks into one overall system.

A great deal of what makes buildings fire safe is also about understanding fire risk. So we added the suggestions that third party validation and certification, good technical advice and application by competent people are very important points that should be stressed in any high level discussions. 

It is the whole matter of understanding risk which underpins fire safety quality. The situation we appears to be in is one where some buildings are constructed using methods and materials that when combined do not produce a built environment with an enduring fire safety legacy. Our current professional stance appears to be if we put together systems drawn from backgrounds of assurance, with technical guidance and expertise we will be on track to build a fire safe future; that may be true but only if the risk is fully understood. 

A professional stance founded on human endeavour; current effort to correct a system failure. The system failed at Grenfell Tower and in the residential home and hotel fires the buildings shared some similarities being relatively recent modern buildings, constructed in compliance with the building controls prevalent at the time, using combinations of timber and other materials and following accepted construction practices. In simple terms probably nothing unusual or exceptional about them, thousands of similar examples probably exist. 

Thus we reach the nub of the debate having seen this type of accepted building system perform. In 2012 a government study of timber dwellings noted that “Fires in timber framed dwellings under construction had on average larger areas of damage compared to dwellings of no special construction.” Accepting, as always, we must await the outcomes of any investigations before drawing conclusions many in the fire business argue enough is already known about the fire safety performance contemporary building construction to ask if the proposals now in hand will address these sorts of issue and indeed more deeply perhaps if this is really the ‘sustainable’ built environment legacy society desires.

In this context it has to be said fire risk management is far more than protecting lives. As an advanced society we know how to prevent, detect, alert, suppress, control and mitigate fire; quantify and assess risk; balance human and economic values. The built environment shouldn’t resemble our ‘throwaway society’ with foundations of ‘lowest cost’; the opportunity to get fire safety on the right track is with us now and we all need to play our part.

Dennis Davis is executive officer at Fire Sector Federation. For more information, visit www.firesectorfederation.co.uk