10 October 2019
Stephen Adams discusses current issues when it comes to complex buildings and fire safety.
END USERS have a substantial task of upholding their fire safety policies when it comes to public/complex buildings. This has only become further scrutinised following the devastating Grenfell Tower Fire that occurred over two years ago. However, this is not the first or will be the last large fire in a complex building with an unnecessary loss of life if stronger measures are not mandated.
With the multitude of news stories and developments regarding Brexit, the global warming crisis and other headline worthy stories bombarding our news feeds it is understandable how events of fire are quickly forgotten by the public, but not for us in the fire safety industry. For example, the Rosepark care home fire in 2004 claimed the lives of 14 elderly residents and Lakanal House tower block fire in 2009, which claimed 3. Some may be dismissive and say these are old examples, but to counter this judgement I would refer to the very recent Notting Hill tower block fire, less that a quarter of a mile from the Grenfell site in August or the even more recent Worcester Park flats that were destroyed earlier this September. Thankfully, these two examples experienced no loss of life, but still exemplifies that the issue of fire risk and its probability is not going away any time soon. If anything, it feels that we are experiencing a high number of commercial and high-risk building fires this year – some of which I am sure could have been avoided.
The large variety of people either residing in or visiting complex buildings, alongside their behaviour, can strain the policy in place if not respected. This combined with an ever-growing population and with this, an increase in the elderly population, puts further pressure on the Responsible Person/Duty Holder to get this right.
The Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety final report, published May 2018, highlighted an extremely important topic – consistent, accurate building information in the interest of life and building safety. Also documented as the “golden thread of building information” by Dame Judith Hackitt, it was summarised that:
“The review heard almost unanimous concern surrounding the ineffective operation of the current rules around the creation, maintenance and handover of building and fire safety information. Where building information is present, it is often incomplete or held in paper form and is not accessible to the people who need to see it” – Chapter 8.1
A building, however complex, can only have its risk of fire mitigated if all relevant information is available to the person responsible for fire safety (e.g. Responsible Person/Duty Holder). At present, there is a level of trust that is too high to have faith that the building materials used for example, are exactly as designed and specified with no changes to these during the building process. It is also a matter of debate exactly to what lengths the fire risk assessor should go here. For example, fire risk assessors would categorically not remove a piece of manufactured cladding to test its fire rating, they must trust this has been specified and installed appropriately for the building and have the correct information available.
This is where the “golden thread” of information throughout the entire life-cycle of a complex building will aid everyone involved with the safety process. Knowing a complete history, from initial build, refurbishments, repairs and maintenance, will allow for a more transparent safety assessment and application.
At the recent Emergency Services Show in Birmingham, during the seminar “Best Practices within the Fire and Rescue Service” chair of the panel Duncan White stated, “All of us that have been firefighters know, if it’s simple, it’s easy to use, then it will be used properly, and it will be used with efficiency.”
Although this comment referred going to industry requesting fit for purpose products and technology it also can apply to independent assurances of competence such as Third Party Certification. Now the frustration here for the fire safety/protection industry is that, with our understanding of differentiation of quality and competency levels, why is Third Party Certification not a primary requirement by the Fire and Rescue Service? This is purely to support people to comply with their fire safety obligations to the best of their ability. The industry must step up to assist and contribute to the Fire and Rescue Service, both in the interest of life/property safety but also to reduce their risk of ever having to enter a high-risk situation. “Prevention is better than cure” strongly drives the Fire and Rescue Service’s (and the fire industry’s) activity. The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service guidance for example:
“The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service works to protect every community not only by responding to incidents, but also by preventing them from happening in the first place.”
Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (Prevention and Protection) https://www.firescotland.gov.uk/what-we-do/prevention-and-protection.aspx
At the NSI Summit earlier this year, FPA managing director Jonathan O'Neill OBE discussed the clear intention of what Third Party Certification of competence represents:
“For me there is a readymade way available immediately based on competence. To me Third Party Certification is the easiest and simplest way for a specifier or end user to have the assurance they require that the chosen supplier is fit for purpose or competent, that the system and system design is risk appropriate, and that the equipment has been tested to the appropriate standards and checked in a factory and the field to ensure what is being made and sold is the same specification as the sample sent for testing.
The mandatory use of Third Party [Certificated] products and services for fire protection should be a given. It’s a complete no brainer as far as I’m concerned, but it isn’t accepted at the moment - so we have to ask why? Instinctively I feel that using a Third Party [Certificated] installer for a fire alarm should give you the confidence of competence, but I would also assume it would minimise the chances of a false alarm.”
Development and enforcement
To continue the topic of Third Party Certification, this is noted in the multiple fire safety guides available on the Home Office website, but is only a recommendation and does not stress enough why this is a clear choice to help the Responsible Person/Duty Holder meet their fire safety obligations with due diligence.
To illustrate this, at the Elex Show this September in Coventry, Ryan Dempsey, chair of the ESR’s (Electrical Safety Roundtable) Social Housing Sub-Group, discussed the Social Housing issue. He noted that tenant behaviour should be clarified within the safety policy. If the tenant tampers with a system you have no control over this unless you are watching them 24/7. This therefore escalates the issue of maintenance and regular inspections of systems. Ryan continued:
“Frequency of electrical inspection was a really interesting one with 40 electricians (or electrical mangers) arguing about what the frequency should be… [we have] guidance on the frequency of inspection, but it’s the initial inspection. So, if you design any property, how is it going to be used? Who’s going to use it? Who’s going to be living there (tenant profiling)? – that gives you a suggested frequency of the first inspection. There is nowhere in any book that tells you the frequency of inspections, it’s not 10 years, it’s not 5 years, it’s not 1 year, it’s not 15 years, it’s not 20 years – it is down to the individual organisation to make that assessment, make the judgement.”
Ryan added that social housing should not be treated the same as the private rented sector, citing such differences as asset management and multi-million-pound systems in place – a stark difference. This is where Hackitt’s recommended “golden thread” comes back in, where the Fire and Rescue Service as the enforcement body for fire safety legislation nationwide, can investigate with all the appropriate information ready at hand to make a comprehensive judgement on the fire safety of a building and building Managers can have access to what has been provided and subsequently done to ‘their building’.
As previously mentioned, the fire safety industry must step up and support and inform the Fire and Rescue Services nationwide. Armed with further knowledge of Third Party Certification they can support with their remit under Fire & Rescue Services Act 2014 regarding fire safety. We appreciate budgets are constantly under review, but complex building fire safety requires further scrutiny and subsequent prosecution action for poor fire safety management, which puts everyone at risk.
Stephen Adams is chief executive of the BAFE Fire Safety Register. For more information, visit www.bafe.org.uk