Speaking for the sector

23 March 2020

Dennis Davis looks at the potential for environmental change in 2020

This year has not started quite as many hoped and expected. The devastating floods arising from what has been an extremely wet February and the fact we are bracing ourselves as a sophisticated society for possible far-reaching socioeconomic consequences of a health epidemic tells us the world is indeed smaller in a number of ways. Climate change and societal interconnectivity have certainly shown their downside.

Threats do however release potential and this may yet make 2020 one of those years when an important turning point does actually happen. The Fire Sector Federation has constantly championed fire safety in our environment – built or natural, believing sustainability and resilience can be sides of the same coin. How that is translated into practice is however crucial and despite trying hard to improve what in many sectors of society is a lamentable understanding about fire we accept improving the situation has a long way to go.

Grenfell Tower Inquiry

Take for example news from the second phase of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry (GTI). After resolving a legal argument about self-incrimination the GTI is again underway allowing all of us, through review of the provided evidence, to gain a real insight into the design and coordination of the construction process. 

On Day 7 the Inquiry was examining the detail of witness Studio E who, in response to questions, commented: “Rainscreen cladding itself is quite straightforward, especially when you’ve got a concrete substrate……………an ideal backing………….. So the existing building was in a sense no different to a new-build; it just happened to have a lot of people living in it.” 

The risk identified related to the weight of the cladding with the project recognised as complex, being a high rise existing building with a single means of escape. Within the sophisticated processes that surround building contracts these concerns of risk and complexity were therefore identified to be managed. 

This example helps us gain an appreciation perhaps of how far some things have moved on yet how little others have changed. It also highlights weakness in those crunch matters of competence, capability and application. Everyone is aware that information, data, educational and knowledge depositories are available yet equally for various reasons they appear to not be effectively joined up. Likewise we know the key drivers of price and time can interact unfavourably when effort and cost are demanded to introduce or embed safety systems. 

Decade of Improvement

Sorting this all out was never going to be easy, hence the Federation’s call for a “Decade of Improvement” after the Grenfell tragedy, and to be fair a lot of effort has been put in to planning. So much so, in the near future we anticipate legislative and regulatory proposals designed to help redress some of the present “risk –v– cost” imbalance seen in the building and construction sectors. Hopefully a leap forward will then emerge where a thread of control to reset the relationship between life safety, including fire, and negative impacts arising from the well-worn building mantra of time and cost imperatives, already tarnished as ‘build more - faster - cheaper’, will happen.

However that can only ever be a part of the story. Stopping gaming, halting shortcuts, restricting poor practices needs the sort of universal acceptance that can only be sustained through culture and transparency. Creating a good environment is certainly closer and must soon be within reach. It will however need industry to be optimistic enough to invest and visualise the benefits as well as there to be a backbone of support and, yes, penalties. Why? Well without these components the level playing field sound business competition requires to behave responsibly will remain obscured. 

The Fire Sector Federation is certainly pushing for 2020 to have a positive outcome by promoting five priorities: construct a fire safe environment; develop and trust competent people; raise understanding of fire safety; increase surveillance and penalise avoiders; and – above all – protect lives and property, everywhere and every way it can.    

Dennis Davis is executive officer at Fire Sector Federation. For more information visit: