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Raising the bar of competency

20 January 2020

Niall Rowan investigates the issue of competence with regards to the specification, installation and maintenance of fire protection products

The fire at the five-storey Travelodge hotel in Brentford west London on 4th December serves to highlight yet again concerns regarding modern building processes, materials and the overall quality of construction.

The fire is the latest in a catalogue of large loss fires in recent months involving buildings with a sleeping risk where rapid and ‘unexpected’ fire spread has been a major feature. These include the Holiday Inn hotel in Walsall; the Premier Inn at Cribb’s Causeway, Bristol; the block of flats in Worcester Park, south-west London; the Beechmere retirement complex in Crewe; and The Cube student accommodation in Bolton. 

These buildings use a range of Modern Methods of Construction, with many being of timber-framed construction or featuring cladding products. The Association for Specialist Fire Protection (ASFP) is concerned that the use of such materials, matched with poor levels of build quality and little understanding of fire protection principles is putting lives at risk.

While there is little information available to date on these particular buildings, there are a number of documented examples of modern buildings where fire protection systems have been poorly installed and maintained, and even missing from key areas of the buildings. In fact, the quality of construction of many buildings has been found to be poor as evidenced in the report from the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety led by Dame Judith Hackitt and the Report of the Independent Inquiry into the Construction of Edinburgh Schools

This ‘race to the bottom’ in the construction industry with a focus on cost rather than quality was emphasised in the Hackitt report, which recommended a change in culture within the UK construction industry and significant reform of the UK fire safety regulatory system. 

The report identified a lack of clarity in the roles and responsibilities throughout a building’s lifecycle, from design and construction to maintenance during occupation; and inadequate means of assessing and ensuring adequate levels of competency throughout the process. The report also recognised the vital role of installers, noting that ‘the integrity and efficacy of products and systems is highly dependent on correct installation by competent and knowledgeable persons’.   

Along with many others in the sector, the Association for Specialist Fire Protection (ASFP) has long been campaigning for formal competency requirements for fire professionals; mandatory third party certification of products and installers; and a system that more clearly sets out the requirements and responsibilities at each stage of construction. 

Design and build

The current practice of design and build is a significant area of concern for the ASFP. It often gives rise to some of the worst examples of passive fire protection installation because the installations are not designed properly in advance and the fire-stopping contractor has to design something ‘on the hoof’.

Under design and build schemes, a client will offer the basic concept, or a brief, to construction companies who will undertake (with their own design team) to deliver the completed building largely to performance-based requirements. The design and construction becomes the contractor’s responsibility and he will deliver a building to meet the client’s needs. 

This often means that the first time a fire-stopping or other compartmentation detail is considered is after all the services have been installed, giving the fire-stopping contractor a headache, as they are often confronted with arrangements for which there are no tested and/or certified solutions. 

Considering the design and specification of passive fire protection early in the design process of a building can help avoid many of the pitfalls before they occur. The ASFP has been working with the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) on creating a Fire Safety Overlay for the RIBA Plan of Works. This provides a detailed specification for fire protection at the design stage and a schedule for fire throughout the construction process. It includes sign offs as construction progresses, with all information reaching the end-user to support adequate fire risk management.

Industry initiatives

The ASFP is also working with the Industry Response Group (Construction Products Association, Build UK and Construction Industry Council) to set up a Competency Steering Group (CSG) to tackle competency failings identified in the Hackitt Review. 

In its report entitled Raising the Bar, the CSG has published a radical and wide-ranging set of measures aimed at improving the competence of those who design, construct, inspect, maintain and operate higher risk residential buildings (HRRBs). The ASFP welcomes these proposals and has provided input to them, having sat on four of the Working Groups for ‘installing contractors’, ‘fire risk assessors’, ‘architects and designers’ and ‘products’.

The competence frameworks developed by the CSG and its working groups set out the appropriate knowledge, qualifications and skill sets required for individuals working on HRRBs, how they should be assessed and by whom. 

Raising the Bar recommends: 

  • A new oversight body - the Building Safety Competence Committee – to create a central register of dutyholders eligible to work on HRRBs and drive improvements across the sector. ASFP aims to obtain membership of this body
  • Government to mandate individuals working on HRRBs to be registered/certified by a recognised professional/or certified body. 
  • All organisations, including professional bodies, carrying out the assessments and reassessments of an individual’s competence should themselves be subject to a rigorous system of oversight by a body such as UKAS or the Engineering Council. 
  • The period of reassessment for individuals is to be no less than every five years. 
  • Common principles of continuing professional development (CPD) to be established for each sector, which the Building Safety Competence Committee should use to hold sectors to account. 
  • Fire safety CPD materials to explain basic fire science to be available to anyone working on HRRBs or managing occupied HRRBs. 

The ASFP warmly welcomes the proposals introduced by Raising the Bar and is working within the Competency Steering Group Working Groups to implement the recommendations in advance of any legislation which might be forthcoming.

ASFP advice 

To this end, the ASFP, in collaboration with the Institution of Fire Engineers (IFE), has developed a passive fire protection training programme. The ASFP Foundation Courses in Passive Fire Protection offer a foundation in fire safety and fire science, as well as units on different forms of passive fire protection. Candidates can then study towards obtaining Level 2 and Level 3 qualifications provided by the Institution of Fire Engineers (IFE), an internationally recognised awarding organisation. 

These are the only passive fire protection qualifications in the UK and Ireland recognised by Ofqual. Furthermore, those who obtain the IFE Level 3 Certificate are eligible to apply to join the IFE at Technician level enabling them to gain professional recognition in the global fire sector and use the post nominal TIFireE.  

The training is suitable for all involved in the construction industry from designers and specifiers to contractors and specialist installers. Courses are also suitable for building owner occupiers, fire risk assessors and enforcement agencies.    

The ASFP also offers an e-learning course designed to provide a basic introduction to passive fire protection and its role in the overall fire strategy of a building, covering key elements of design, installation and inspection. It offers a first step for those considering a career in the passive fire protection industry and is ideal for all site operatives who may come into contact with passive fire protection systems, providing them with an excellent insight into the vital role that such systems play.

The ASFP has long recommended the specification of third party certificated products, installed by third party certificated installers. This ensures an auditable trail from the specialist that installed the relevant fire protection measure, back through to the product or systems manufacturer.

Third party product certification provides architects, specifiers, enforcement authorities and building owners with a high level of confidence that products are ‘fit for purpose’. It offers assurance that works undertaken will use appropriate materials which will be installed correctly. All ASFP contractor members are third party certificated, so always look for the ASFP logo.

Building owners and fire services alike must be confident that buildings are constructed and maintained in accordance with fire safety legislation and that they can rely on them to perform as expected should a fire occur. The only way to ensure the safety of our buildings is to adequately enforce the building regulations and the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order and to require owners and responsible persons to undertake regular audits of compartmentation and other fire safety systems. Similarly, competency requirements for specifiers, installers, maintainers and responsible persons must be defined and policed.  

Education about the role played by fire safety systems and their intrinsic value is also vital. Only then will the importance of quality and competency, rather than cost be truly recognised and the safety of our built environment assured.

Niall Rowan is CEO of the Association for Specialist Fire Protection (ASFP). For further information visit www.asfp.org.uk