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Proficiency test

01 March 2021

Competency-based qualifications have become a talking point in both the fire safety industry and the construction sector following reports issued in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire. Nic Preston deliberates on how the education and fire safety industries can work together on improving individual competencies and evidencing the professionalism of the sector

IN THE report produced following the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety, Dame Judith Hackitt observed the necessity to monitor the level of competency of individuals working within the construction sector and related fields. The review process identified the “lack of a coherent approach to competence levels and experience required – or professional qualifications where these may be necessary – and how these qualifications and experience should be evidenced so that they are clearly understood by all those operating within the system.”

It's a clear message to individuals (and organisations) who proclaim: “I know what I’m doing” without providing any suitable evidence of their competency to deliver the service. Such a response could well overlook any gaps in knowledge and lead to them not reacting appropriately when it comes to any changes in relation to industry standards or other crucial guidance.

The years following the Grenfell Tower fire have been challenging, with that tragic event having brought several industry shortcomings to light. Dame Judith Hackitt has focused on the belief that a culture change is required. That belief has also been championed by Jonathan O’Neill, managing director of the Fire Protection Association who, during UK Construction Week back in 2019, stated: “We must see regulatory change. Dame Judith Hackitt has said to the construction industry: ‘You don’t need to have legislation to effect cultural change’. Let’s face it, we do. We need change and we need it now.”

FireQual understands that, as part of this culture change, there’s a need for individuals to have access to robust and fit for purpose, nationally and internationally recognised qualifications providing developmental progression pathways through the industry. Qualification requirements will now be scrutinised to a far greater degree, with the Association for Specialist Fire Protection (ASFP) being one of the first organisations to increase membership competency requirements from the start of this year. The ASFP has already stated that it will be “mandatory for member companies to demonstrate that a proportion of their employees have been suitably trained and/or have achieved appropriate qualifications in passive fire protection”.

ASFP CEO Niall Rowan has commented: “The ASFP has long been the standard bearer for technical excellence in passive fire protection, for instance with our requirement that installer members hold third party certification for products that they install. The Grenfell tragedy has further triggered significant change in the way that fire safety is perceived. Improving the quality of installations and demonstrating the competency of those involved in manufacturing, testing, installing and maintaining fire protection products is now vital.”

Rowan continued: “The ASFP’s new requirements will enable members to clearly demonstrate their skills, competence and professionalism. This will offer architects, specifiers, fire engineers and Tier One contractors further peace of mind that, by specifying ASFP members for all passive fire protection products, services and installations, quality and professionalism is assured.”

Capability requirements

These developments will help kick-start the proverbial snowball effect that will introduce individual capability requirements (alongside organisational third party certification) across several bodies. It will greatly enhance the member quality within respected Trade Associations and other professional bodies in response to Dame Judith’s report. This action will also widen the gap between those certificated people and others within the industry who merely claim to follow the appropriate standards without having any demonstrable proof of their knowledge, skills or expertise.

In the document ‘Setting the Bar: A New Competence Regime for Building a Safer Future’ published last October, a major recommendation was to “apply stringent assessment of individuals”. It states: “For individuals whose work materially affects safety, or who work unsupervised, compliance needs to be demonstrated by independent third party assessment. All others working on higher-risk buildings should be supervised by individuals who have been third party assessed as competent to carry out the work and to act as supervisors.” Stringent assessment conducted to define ongoing individual competence will aid in the creation of a safer environment for all in which to work.

The British Standards Institution (BSI) has recently issued the revised version (v2.0) of its Flex 8670 draft document (entitled ‘Built Environment: Overarching Framework for Building Safety Competence of Individuals – Specification) for public comment. This questions outright exactly what defines competency for individuals. The document asserts: “Competence is primarily concerned with human behaviour and is multi-dimensional, multifaceted, inherently non-discrete and context-dependent. Competence is therefore defined in many different ways across different industries. This is necessary to reflect the specific circumstances and meet the specific needs of the individuals and organisations employing individuals operating in those industries.”

Additionally, the document observes: “For an individual to be considered competent, sector-specific competence frameworks should require that individuals have the appropriate skills, knowledge and experience, combined with appropriate behaviours, to be able to fulfil their defined role, function or activity and carry out appropriate tasks. This is sometimes referred to in shorthand as SKEB.”

The knowledge aspect of SKEB is described as an “essential building block of competence leading to the development of skills.” There’s a particular focus on developing this formal – or codified – knowledge to raise competency levels for individuals within the fire safety industry. That’s not to undermine or otherwise lessen the importance of workplace experience, but skills can only be developed with a solid foundation of understanding in respect of the relevant area of fire safety being performed.

Individual regulation

Moving forward, FireQual aims to play a major part within the area of individual competency-based qualifications. We look to specialise in supporting the industry, ensuring that we always maintain our focus on what’s important: the development of a consistent competency-based approach. Undertaking a regulated qualification helps to concentrate efforts on the development of the individual with a view towards ensuring that they can demonstrate minimum competencies in a given subject area.

Regulated qualifications help to ensure reliability and consistency. If an individual achieves a qualification, it doesn’t matter where they are locally, regionally, nationally or internationally. All must meet the same requirements. It helps to provide confidence in the knowledge and skills that person claims to have. It’s not something they say they can do. They’ve had to prove it and do so in front of a recognised standard. Employers (both large and small in scale) can be confident in the knowledge and skills of those individuals who work for them, while wider society can have confidence in those who provide defined services to them.

What should never be overlooked is the very real sense of achievement it can give to those who achieve qualifications by dint of working hard to develop themselves. Robust qualifications recognise such achievements.

These qualifications also help to provide assurance of the quality of the training provided. Not only does the individual involved demonstrate the knowledge and skills they’ve developed during their training in achieving the qualification, but the organisations delivering that training are themselves also subject to rigorous quality assurance checks.

Within the safety industry, there are many training programmes and qualifications available that fall under ‘self-regulation’, meaning that they may not have been suitably reviewed by an appropriate independent body. Of course, this doesn’t mean that certain training available isn’t delivered to a high-quality standard. However, FireQual – among other Awarding Bodies – will only provide qualifications that sit within the national qualification regulatory systems. This is an important factor to consider as qualifications are set for far greater scrutiny in the coming years.

Competency for life safety

FireQual very much follows the mantra of BAFE whereby it’s continually asserted and stressed that ‘fire safety is life safety’. For over 30 years now, BAFE has been at the forefront of providing the necessary access and guidance for those wishing to achieve independent and quality-based evidence of organisational competency.

Third party-certificated fire safety service providers are usually assessed on an annual basis to re-evaluate this level of competency. The concept of ongoing and continuous development will hold much more importance for individuals in the coming years and, indeed, is discussed as a matter of importance in the ‘Setting the Bar’ document.

The document notes a recommendation that competency should be reassessed regularly, stating: “For those involved with higher-risk buildings, there should be a robust system of reassessment so as to ensure that they have maintained their competence in relation to the work they are registered/certified to undertake and have a plan to develop new competences where necessary. The frequency of reassessment may vary between disciplines, but it should be at least every five years.”

The aforementioned BSI Flex 8670 document echoes that sentiment: “Competence is perishable over time and requires positive action to maintain. This includes building on and refreshing skills, knowledge and understanding, identifying specific requirements relevant to work being undertaken and keeping abreast of changes in context such as regulation or technology. Maintaining competence, also known as CPD, includes informal and formal activities. This can include activities such as training and refresher courses, toolbox talks and mentoring or supervision and formal learning.”

Keeping pace with change

FireQual will acknowledge the importance of maintaining relevant qualifications, providing opportunities for practitioners to both progress and refresh their knowledge and skills where suitable. It’s important to ensure that qualifications keep pace with industry developments and changes within standards or working practice, thereby ensuring that education works in collaboration – and not at odds with – industry.

We firmly believe the future of the fire safety industry looks far safer than ever before, with individual competency gaining the level of attention it has needed for some time now and, what’s more, absolutely deserves.

Lewis Ramsay QFSM MBA, chairman of the Board at FireQual and former assistant chief fire officer at the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, explained: “As chair of FireQual, I’ve enjoyed working with a range of people to develop a means to deliver qualifications which will promote both fire and life safety. When I was a serving fire officer this was a specific focus and objective over my 30-year career. I’m delighted to have this opportunity to continue to support these tenets through FireQual, not just in Scotland, but nationally and, potentially at least, further afield.”

Importantly, Ramsay concluded: “We must substantiate much stronger clarity on individual competency and who should be considered capable of working in the [fire safety] field. My career has taught me that mistakes will be made along the way, but we need to assist in the reduction of those mistakes by delivering reliably knowledgeable and skilled individuals.”

Nic Preston is Qualifications Manager of FireQual (www.firequal.com)