Go for gold

20 January 2020

Trevor Norwood from Xact Consultancy & Training provides his take on instilling competency within our sector and looks at how we can weave the Golden Thread concept into the fabric of fire safety training

The Grenfell Tower fire, in which 72 lost their lives in June 2017, has highlighted deficits in our fire safety sector in protecting occupants and switched the focus on what is required to prevent such a tragedy happening again.

Dame Judith Hackitt, who led the inquiry into the disaster, has highlighted the importance of maintaining the “Golden Thread” to ensure a building’s concept, design, construction, occupation, refurbishment and demolition is fit for purpose throughout its lifetime.

But how can the Golden Thread concept be applied to training within the sector?

The new mood of encouraging a focus on ensuring that those working on buildings understand how their activities impact on each other and how the channels of communication should be opened between them is over-due – but most welcome.

Communication and co-ordination failures

Dame Judith’s 2018 Independent Review of Building Regulations highlighted that fire safety strategies and systems were being installed without consideration to their compatibility with other systems and the overall fire safety of buildings as a whole.

It went on to say that the original concepts of design were not being properly recorded and reviewed as they were carried through construction, specification changes and refurbishment. This has resulted in incompatible fire safety systems not fit for purpose and a lack of understanding of overall fire strategy.

I can definitely relate to this based on some instances I have encountered within the past five years. In one case, designers on a project to re-commission a large disused listed building produced a safety strategy involving a high level of management to overcome practical difficulties in achieving compliance with the building regulations.

Once occupied, the management company was unable to maintain levels specified by the strategy. Had the designers discussed the fire strategy with the management company, it would have had a clearer understanding of what was achievable.

In another example, fire alarm and smoke control engineers paid little attention to each other’s requirements. This meant that the smoke control system would not function in an actual fire because it wasn’t linked to the fire alarm system. This occurred in a large building which had been occupied for several years.

Then, there was an occasion when the work of a sprinkler company was ruined by heating engineers: The sprinkler company returned to complete the final stages of installation. During testing, major leaks appeared. Investigation showed that 300mm of pipe runs had been cut for heat ducting.

The 2018 Independent Review highlights this precise issue of communication and co-ordination failure when it recommends that responsibilities for compliance with the building regulations should be allocated to “Clients, Principal Designers and Principal Contractors.”

This is endorsed in the 2019 issue of Approved Document B (England) where the introduction states under heading “Responsibility for compliance” that those responsible for ensuring compliance with the Building Regulations include agents, designers, builders and installers. It goes even further: “The building owner may also be responsible for ensuring that work complies with the Building Regulations.”

Making fire safety managers key

In my view, individuals who manage the fire safety of occupied buildings are key to the safety of occupants and are often under acknowledged.

The 2018 Independent Review recommends regular reviews of overall building integrity with the building’s golden thread of information being maintained throughout its lifetime.

BS 9999 states that “Managing fire safety is the whole process throughout the life of a building” and provides good guidance on the design and handover of the fire safety manual for occupants.

In my experience, on most occasions the information in a fire safety manual isn’t handed over to the occupier.

Placing more importance on the role and competencies of building fire safety managers could lead to a sound fire safety improvement. As I witnessed when I was once party to a situation where The Fire Service maintained that shop occupants could not be evacuated in 2.5 minutes due to increased travel distance.

Despite this, shop staff demonstrated that they could easily manage a full evacuation in less than 2.5 minutes. They achieved this with a good strategy, management and staff training. Something that is missing in many situations.

Enhancing competence

Regarding achieving and maintaining competence, I have observed that there can be a huge difference between training and competency. Attending a training course is no indication of competency unless it is measured against realistic workplace scenarios.

The 2018 Independent Review recommends “enhanced competence” for those involved in procuring, designing, constructing, inspecting, assessing, managing and maintaining.

It goes on to state that all individuals engaged in the life cycle of a building whose work impacts on safety have the proven competence to do so:

“The process by which an individual or organisation is assessed and recognised should be relevant to the role they are undertaking and provide consistent, objective evaluation.”

Having been involved with the design and delivery of numerous qualifications over many years, I couldn’t agree more and offer the following suggestions:

  • Qualifications must be mandatory

Without mandatory qualifications, sections of the market will often gravitate towards the cheapest and easiest option. One of the sectors in which I work in is heavily regulated with national qualifications. Prior to these national qualifications, there was no standard of training or assessment. My company Xact offered a nine-day course with post course work and assessment. Another provider advertised the same course over three days with no assessment. Both courses produced a certificate with the same title but there is potentially a huge difference between the competence of those attending the rival courses on completion.

  • Qualifications fit for purpose

A qualifications assessment criteria is key to its assessment of competence. The inclusion of practical assessments of realistic workplace scenarios is a must.

  • Spot areas without qualification

Unbelievably, there are still many areas in the fire safety sector where there are no nationally agreed standards or qualification. Currently, one can manage the fire safety of a complex building or conduct its fire risk assessment without any assessment of ability, competence or qualification. Thankfully, the Hackitt review has tasked many of these specialised areas to rectify matters.

  • Opt for Virtual Reality as a training tool

Virtual reality scenarios have much to offer the training sector allowing the ability to “enter” spaces and buildings as in real life. We have found from introducing this teaching tool to Xact’s courses that it offers the advantage of combining theory from the training environment with practical application; portraying fire safety issues not obviously apparent from plans or available during a normal workplace environment and offering insight into scenarios which reflect real-life problematic situations.

  • Training is the first step on the road to competency

The acquiring of training and qualifications does not necessarily make an individual competent – they are just beginning the journey. Those at this stage are in development – in the same manner as those who have just passed their driving test. They have no ‘real’ experience and have not developed the skills they learned during their programme of training – yet. They require mentoring and assessment against appropriate standards e.g. National Occupational Standards.

  • Assess Continuous Professional Development (CPD) activity

Achieving competence should be considered a minimum standard and that once achieved, knowledge and skills should be deepened and widened to equip individuals with the skills necessary to conduct roles in a competent manner. As a training provider, I am aware of individuals undertaking fire risk assessments of buildings which could be beyond their level of ability, such as at hotel chains, shopping malls, hospitals and care homes – all after a mere attendance on a four-day course.

Ensuring competencies are developed and maintained is often achieved by CPD with many professional bodies requiring a specified number of hours per year to remain a member.

I advocate that CPD should include some kind of assessment, or other method, to demonstrate learning. A welcome adjunct to this idea is third party accreditation, particularly via organisations regulated by UKAS.

Elevating the sector

To sum up, there exists a critical shortage of fire safety professionals. In my view, it is imperative that we work on broadening professionalism and elevating the sector. An approach to this should include producing national standards and requirements for each specialism; providing qualifications which are fit for purpose and practical assessments of realistic workplace activities. UKAS regulated third party accreditation should also be made a requirement.

The bottom line is that we need to value competent fire safety professionals, whether they are installing a sprinkler pipe bracket or conducting a fire engineered solution for a major high rise complex.

And this extends particularly to those who commission fire safety installations, services and training. Worryingly, I see many tender invitations where the criteria for awarding the tender is based solely on price.

Is it any wonder that the competence of some installations, services and training is poor when quality is not a primary consideration?”

Trevor Norwood is operations director at Xact Consultancy & Training, which provide courses and qualifications to those responsible for fire safety in buildings including The Fire Service, building control, fire risk assessors, sprinkler designers and installers and fire safety managers.  

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