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The onus of the Responsible Person

23 March 2020

Stephen Adams discusses the importance of premises management when it comes to fire safety and the higher level of recognition of this post Grenfell.

The title “Responsible Person”, and the alternate names within UK fire safety legislation, has never been as pertinent as it is today. Regrettably, it took a catastrophic fire for people to wake up and realise the error or ignorance of so many people’s ways. As we approach what will be the third anniversary of the tragic Grenfell Tower fire, the role of the “Responsible Person” (i.e. premises manager or management) needs far stronger significance and consequence to live up to the expectation that this title bears.

At the Fire Protection Association’s Building a Safer Future Seminar event in January this year – Douglas Barnett, BAFE chairman, opened his presentation stating that the upcoming Friday (31/01/2020) marked the 16th anniversary of the Rosepark Care Home fire. This fire in 2004 killed 14 elderly residents and he questioned if lessons had been learned from this event. Mr. Barnett argued very little action has been taken since then [other than Scotland requiring sprinklers in new care homes and guidance from the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA) in Northern Ireland on using competent fire risk assessors]. He stressed we need to push Government, and the industry needs to work on this. 

BAFE considers that if the deaths of 14 people in one fire was not enough to introduce dramatic change to the fire safety arena, together with several other significant fires, we can only hope that Grenfell is the absolute final straw on complacency and more people will fully appreciate and act upon the risk that fire presents. BAFE will continue to contribute to positive change wherever possible, including our efforts with the Hackitt working groups created following this tragedy (including WG4 Fire Risk Assessors, WG2 Installers, WG11 Procurement and the main CSG oversight group).

Quality comes at a cost, including regulation

A lot of the discussions around fire safety post Grenfell has been focused on construction and materials with the term ‘value engineering’. BAFE believe that misapplication of this process also can filter into the choices made when sourcing equipment and service providers (i.e. designers, installers and maintainers) for fire safety systems and provisions. 

The fire safety industry for some time now has been ultimately self-regulating, with bodies such as BAFE, Warringtonfire, LPCB (and others) establishing criteria to determine competency in delivering specific services (via UKAS Accredited Certification Body assessment). Independent and unbiased assessment of competency is quality evidence that a provider can complete the specific work the premises management requires and help them meet their fire safety obligations. These bodies combined are the near equivalent to a “Gas Safe” for the fire industry, and measures such as Government mandating UKAS Accredited Third Party Certification for fire safety services could dramatically improve the industry overnight.

Chris Auger, head of schemes – BAFE, commented after the Fire Sector Summit in November last year: “BAFE fully support and reiterate Jonathan O’Neill’s statement and demands to Government [including the mandating of Third Party Certification]. An important factor here is to consider the entire life-cycle of buildings and their ongoing assessment for fire risk. The competency of fire risk assessors however continues to remain a largely unregulated and precarious market. BAFE introduced the SP205 Life Safety Fire Risk Assessment scheme in 2012, developed with the request from Government after the Lakanal House fire in 2009. The industry has regulatory procedures available, but whilst this remains voluntary only the overtly responsible providers are gaining third party certification to prove their competency in this realm. Big changes are required to ensure only competent providers are being used for the appropriate work. Construction and fire safety providers cannot let all of the excellent work done in the Competency Working Groups go to waste through inactivity from Government or the Industry!”

Unfortunately, quality comes at a cost, but this is not the kind of industry where you can ‘buy twice’ after the initial subpar provisions fail. Fire safety is always, and has always been up to this point, exclusively about life safety. The survival of the building, and indeed the activity conducted there itself has been a lesser concern. 

In the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety: final report, Dame Judith Hackitt discussed the “golden thread” of responsibility. This will affect positive change in the provision of fire safety action and recording of this throughout the entire lifecycle of a building. It states, “The [new] regulator will hold dutyholders [responsible persons/premises management] to account, ensure that the standards are met and take action against those who fail to meet the requirements.”

Near miss

Developments in these last couple of years however have brought up the discussion of building structure and safety. This being important initially for safe evacuation and to account for the emergency services that may be in the building once a fire is established. Secondly, it is debating the reasoning of building regulations. The argument “if everyone got out alive and the building burnt down, regulations have been upheld” is extremely questionable. What if the more recent Crewe care home fire, that was home to over 150 elderly residents, broke out at 4am and not 4pm? It’s astonishing no one was killed in this incident and praise must be given to the local residents and Fire & Rescue Service who rushed to their aid. The fact still remains though, if this near miss had been at the wrong time, this could have been far worse than Grenfell. This coming after so many people responsible for reform have stated post-Grenfell that a fire of this scale and loss should “never happen again” – it almost did, with only luck and good timing on our side.

Legislation and recognising risk

The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (RRO), and equivalents in Scotland and Northern Ireland, stipulate the baseline of what should be in place to protect people from fire within a building under your management. Whilst this is not particularly difficult, factors come into play: management knowledge, budget and the aforementioned, complacency.

I for one am tremendously heartened that UKAS Accredited Third Party Certification now exists for fire risk assessment providers and that it is, albeit slowly, being recognised and specified. What is extremely important however is to stress what exactly a fire risk assessment is to premises management. Without undermining this vital service, the result is quite simply a snapshot of the adequacy of the building’s fire risk at the time the assessment was taken. This alone does not make a building safe from fire and any actions highlighted should be implemented in a timely manner.

Howard Passey, principal consultant - Fire Protection Association, responded to what defined the term “timely manner” means in a question asked at last year’s UK Construction Week in October 2019. He said: “It will depend on the nature of the risk and the problem that needs addressing. And of course, that has to be balanced with the organisation and what they’re actually able to achieve. The role of the risk assessor should be to support the responsible persons in implementing effective controls and remedial actions, where if the most obvious solution is not immediately practicable – to look at other alternatives to ensure the safety of the buildings occupants by doing things slightly differently. That’s where we need to be.” 

Further action and ongoing maintenance

Other important areas pointed out in legislation include:

“The premises are, to the extent that it is appropriate, equipped with appropriate fire-fighting equipment and with fire detectors and alarms.” RRO - Article 13 

“Emergency routes and exits requiring illumination must be provided with emergency lighting of adequate intensity in the case of failure of their normal lighting.” RRO - Article 14

Just as important as getting these systems and provisions for your fire safety policy in place, is to ensure they “are subject to a suitable system of maintenance and are maintained in an efficient state, in efficient working order and in good repair” (RRO - Article 17). Installed fire safety systems are not switched on and off every day like security detection, but premises management must be confident it will work at any time, immediately in the event of an emergency and that it meets the needs of the premises.

Whilst these points are common knowledge to the fire safety industry, it needs to be frequently said to the premises manager or management to remind them of these responsibilities on top of their other tasks and daily duties. Finally, for Third Party Certificated companies, make sure you highlight exactly what services you are certificated to provide to your potential clients. This verification of your achievements will help in developing end user confidence in order that they can exercise full due diligence and check your certification is appropriate for their requirements before any work is undertaken. 

Stephen Adams is chief executive of the BAFE Fire Safety Register. For more information please visit: ​www.bafe.org.uk