FSF focuses on government's Grenfell response
04 June 2019
Time is marching on and the recent closure of phase one of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, 18 months after the fire, is very much an apt moment for a stock check. The Fire Sector Federation looks at what the government and industry is doing to prevent a similar tragedy happening again.
There is no doubt that a sea change has been underway with more activity in one year than has been seen in many a year on building fire safety. A lot of that activity is voluntary spurred on by the industry’s own desire to change for the better. From the catalyst of Dame Judith Hackitt’s independent review, to which the government responded positively establishing an expert panel and a building safety programme, there has spawned an industry response group, competency steering group and industry safety steering group, all engaging many volunteers in the wider fire safety and construction sectors. Literally hundreds of people are now involved, fully or as part of their main job, in building a safer future.
Will it be enough? Certainly the sheer scale of the construction sector is in itself an issue when it comes to implementation. Enterprises from lone workers to global conglomerates are involved, each having an ability to contribute or frustrate, and whilst neatly packaged boundary secure environments do exist in some circumstances, like on new build projects, so do the unconfined and more frequent ad hoc maintenance and ‘small jobs’, which are the life blood of the building industry. Therein lays a serious problem for fire safety since it takes only ignorance of safety components or poor work to negate an installed fire barrier or the overall effectiveness of a fire alarm or suppression system.
Given that operations are conducted on such a scale requires a real step change. Culture is certainly a part alongside knowledge and understanding tempered by quality in application. This has to happen across a vast workforce and somehow getting that message, not just listened to but, acted upon is a challenge. The reality is that time will be needed as well as committed people to achieve the level of change required.
In a similar way those outside the construction industry appear to be seeking new reassurance that what they have is safe and secure, being well-made, to meet appropriate standards. Meeting standards, let alone raising them, usually calls for development and description with inspection to ensure compliance.
Again there are pressures to examine and test the existing institutions for these qualities and add a third value that of oversight. Emotive phrases like ‘they are marking their own homework’ have become popular and current. The questions raised however remain valid and unmistakeably there is a movement towards more ‘third party’ assurance, either through certification or accreditation processes. Quiet how reassurance of this kind trickles down the construction networks is something that has yet to be confronted.
Taken as separate parts the reassurance process can of course be managed. Standard setting and testing are well organised; inspection and compliance arrangements exist. What is less clear is the effectiveness and transparency of these essential processes. Open comment and questions have already been raised about the adequacy and availability of the skilled resources required and the value and openness of product testing and recording systems. As we enter the Inquiry’s second phase how many more doubts and even inadequacies might be raised that require a considered and practical response, given the complexity of the construction sector matches its scale?
The questions of scale and reassurance help show that what we are considering really is a fundamental shift in attitude rather than evolution of existing practices. It also perhaps advises that caution is needed. The building fire safety system self-evidently failed and in trying to fix it it’s important to both recognise what works as well as what doesn’t – care with babies and bathwater - to ensure we are improving the system.
That’s important because we cannot make such fundamental changes often. The work to make the changes now underway results from our experience of tragedy and, whilst we hope in the future there may be no repetition, there may be other building safety failures. The design of our new arrangements - practical and legal – must be capable of enduring. Simply this isn’t about solving one distinct problem it has to be about producing a safer building system that is durable and flexible for the foreseen innovations and practices of an industry that is globally renowned for its constant developments.
For more information, visit www.firesectorfederation.co.uk
Tel: 01608 812543