Speaking for the sector - October 2019

10 October 2019

With competency being at the forefront of the fire safety industry, Dennis David looks at the need for cultural change.

A reoccurring theme in fire safety is that of competency. It is therefore apt that this autumn we have seen released the outcomes of over a year of deliberations on this very subject by those directly involved in fire and construction. Their substantial volume, entitled Raising the Bar - Interim Report,contains not only a great deal of thought but 67 firm recommendations.

Gauged to invite comment so that the thirteen working groups who contributed can refine and finalise their thinking Raising the Bar is both a response to Dame Judith Hackitt’s comments on the inadequate state of competency in the construction sector, made in her May 2018 Building a Safer Future Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety report, but perhaps as important, a reflection by those intimately involved to improve that which many already recognised as a perilous situation.

The process of delivering Raising the Bar is also very much a landmark because to deliver the report required a working collaboration of individual representatives from the construction and fire sectors. This outcome alone is well worthy of note given cooperation of this kind underpins that most valuable commodity: mutual awareness and respect. 

As we all now await the next stage of deliberations we must also hold our breath to see how the government’s consideration of the multiple responses made to the Building a Safer Future Proposals for reform of the building safety regulatory system June 2018 consultation will develop.

Although the industries’ competency initiative is parallel and separate to the government, decisions on the latter will substantially impact upon effectiveness. Why, because there is a clear integration of purpose between the two initiatives illustrated by the fact many of the Raising the Barrecommendations seek power, direction or support from the new regulatory regime.

However another significant influence resides elsewhere and arguably closer to home; the essence of improving competency involves that most important construction sector convention; the one that prioritises the industry’s overall approach and operational culture.

Looking at where we are and how we got here, few connected with the built environment must doubt the ‘drive to the bottom’ on the price of everything has had a profound negative influence on fire safety. We are told financial margins are tight, competitiveness high, the drive to build more homes faster greater, and that costs for materials and labour continuously increase. 

All of that may be true but perhaps that drive has also served to obscure a drift in understanding the impact on safetyleaving behind an unintended consequence; one where the demands of industrialisation fragment tasks and realise a separation between specialists and general functionaries. The ultimate outcome becoming a loss of holistic oversight with attention to detail adding layers that can complicate and confuse responsibility.

Returning to competency resolving weaknesses requires investment; and not simply to learn how to do a job and how that job fits into any overall system. Crucial too is knowing what it means to do a job properly since without this component performance can be easily compromised. Creating and maintaining a good surrounding culture, one supportive of professional standards of behaviour with opportunities to seek assistance and advice or even call out wrong doing, is vital. 

Stopping a job when there has been an error that needs rectification is never easy in a fast moving fully integrated environment where knock on effects have consequences. It is here that the prevalent operating culture has its profound effect on any action. 

Legal demands

In this sort of circumstance the cultural implications are apparent but they can have affects in other more subtle ways. Take the common trend of developing multi-skilled workers, for example, the individual who manages several tasks as say a safety manager. Expected to operate across a number of disciplines knowledgably, responsible for wrapping together in one job a number of job parts or tasks, to secure in a simplified way the answer to the many, often legal, demands placed upon owners and operators. These jobs present people with real challenges.

How we get this cultural part of the fire safety competency equation right is crucial. A supportive culture requires common understanding and appreciation. That is why the joint work that produced the Raising the Barreport is such a milestone event.

Fire hopefully will remain an infrequent occurrence but a great deal of how serious or not are its consequences when it happens really does depend on how well an extremely long chain of people have learnt, interact and play their part in the whole safety process.

In discussions about the government’s own conundrum of offering a new comprehensive, adaptable, acceptable, affordable and robust building system the suggestion has been heard that the “authority”, so earnestly requested and seen as so necessary by some working groups to make their recommendations work, will be ‘mandatory by default’; in other words a derived rather than explicit power. 

Worryingly this could leave open the prospect that there might still be opportunities for gaming the new system; that success requires the regulators to be far more proactive, something that itself requires resources in depth. The question then asked is will such a reliant system approach will be good enough to reverse the current cost imbedded culture.

In the months ahead conclusions will be drawn on both initiatives. It can only be hoped that the ‘who and how’ to drive the desired cultural change forward will be forefront in the decision makers minds.

Dennis Davis is executive officer of the Fire Sector Federation. For more information, visit