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Speaking for the sector - June 2019

25 April 2019

Third party scrutiny and industry standards are designed to ensure provide assurance, but Dennis David says that sometimes messages get confused.

PERHAPS ONE of the outstanding features of the past months has been the concerted drive to find better ways of giving assurance to all those who connect with fire safety services whether through products or people. Although the work undertaken by responsible industry enforcers and regulators to meet the call of government has made on behalf of the public may not yet be evident it is happening and at some pace. Thousands of hours are being spent to make the public safer.

Central to most of this thinking and effort has been the concept of third party scrutiny, not marking your own homework, avoiding accusations of self-approved endorsement, stating facts not marketing messages, etc. Fairly straightforward you would say but is it that simple?

First take the way we generally operate in the West, in a free market. In some activities, like the commercial environment, it is understandable that having designed, tested and produced a product and releasing it into a competitive world it would be reasonable to accompany statements showing compliance alongside other statements extolling advantages and benefits hopefully with the caution that the latter doesn’t mislead compliance. This is recognised everywhere from cars to kitchen ware and so it is no surprise it happens in the area of building and fire safety products.

Problems of course arise when the messages get confused, i.e. what exactly does the product do? Or when there is no clear third party who is independent of the service or product supplier. This might be more pronounced for those services or products traded in from other global markets where the local cultural and marketing approach is different to the UK.

The standard fix for all of this is of course to make sure you have an appropriate standard, preferably local and international, and someone trusted to measure and accredit the product or service, the checker’s checker, the assurance body, who will certify the standard has been used and applied correctly. Generally this works well provided industry acts responsibly and uses the tests as intended to demonstrate quality and compliance. It does cost, takes time and is to some level confidential as advantages can soon be lost!

However take away either away either pillar of support and you have a serious dilemma. Standards we know take time to agree especially when their international so careful attention to fill any gaps naturally becomes a focus. Likewise on reassurance all accepted test houses operate to accredited standards and have limits of capacity so again the attention turns to testing the products needed ‘now’. This can leave another gap, that surrounding the less physical products and more related to service activities like competency in fire safety services, which may not fit into current assurance regimes.

Secondly, despite all this hard work, there also emerges another challenge. What if having pressed hard to get the best standard and assurance it is found that there is no serious obligation to use that protection for the public good? Responsible industry can go so far but it cannot dictate use and if there is a failure to enforce or worse, the accredited third party certified product or service is regarded as un-enforceable, then that is outside industry’s control and remit.

When those who have spent time effort and money find they are actually operating on a tilted playing field, one where cost is the single most important feature in winning contracts, where their effort is wasted and, more importantly, safety compromised, it is hardly a surprise to hear a call to change the rules.

The very least that should be considered is to offer the users who have tried to do it right by engaging companies with accredited third party certified products some legal support. Ideally, a statutory defence, which operates in the way they have will help them protect their interests and those of their customers, the public by demonstrating they approached safety responsibly. Such an approach would also help level the playing field and shift the culture to one where trust is assured. If it also helped drive out the cheapskates who profit by cutting essentials so much the better. There is a price to assurance and it’s not just industry’s’ problem.

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