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Sign of the CROSS

25 April 2021

As a direct consequence of the horrific fire at Grenfell Tower in June 2017, and as part of the organisation’s stated mission to make structures safer, save lives and reduce injures, CROSS-UK’s remit has now been broadened to encompass fire safety. Neil Gibbins outlines the benefits to be realised by this move

BACK IN December 2017, just six months after the Grenfell Tower fire, Dame Judith Hackitt produced her interim report focused on the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety. The themes and issues identified in that initial document continue through to the final report, all of them being accepted by the Government. Indeed, they’re now being addressed through various parliamentary and other processes.

Taking one paragraph from any document runs a very real risk of losing the context, but the following statement stands very well on its own and perfectly captures the essence of what Dame Judith uncovered during the review process: “The work of the review to date has found that the current regulatory system for ensuring fire safety in high-rise and complex buildings is not fit for purpose. This applies throughout the life cycle of a building, both during construction and occupation, and is a problem connected both to the culture of the construction industry and the effectiveness of the regulators.”

Around the time of the interim report’s publication, it was a pleasure for me to be invited to join a gathering of individuals carefully chosen to help identify solutions to the issues identified. The convened meeting was addressed by the (then) Home Secretary Amber Rudd, whose words on the day have resonated ever since: “People in our country must never again be faced with the decision to either die from fire in their flat or jump.”

Like a great many who’ve been at the sharp end in a fire situation, I could easily put myself into that space. My more recent experiences in strategic and political circles made me think that such strong words from the Home Secretary confirmed that the Government really understood the gravity of the situation. The Home Secretary so clearly articulated the horror that should not happen to people in our care, duly recognising that the system in place was broken.

In the beginning

It was also around this time when I first encountered Alastair Soane, a founding member of Collaborative Reporting for Safer Structures UK (CROSS-UK) where he’s now a consultant and a member of the Technical Board). In my role as technical advisor to the Institution of Fire Engineers (IFE), Alastair approached me to open a discussion about CROSS-UK. Dame Judith subsequently went on to make a distinct recommendation that CROSS should be expanded.

Founded in 1976, CROSS is trusted to publish and provide free safety-related information to help today’s practising professionals make structures safer. The detail can be browsed on the safety information section of the website. All safety information published is checked for quality by the CROSS-UK team, including information from third party organisations.

Today, CROSS Safety Alerts, for example, raise awareness of safety issues which are considered to be critical and time sensitive. Alerts can be based on the reports received by CROSS-UK and information in the public domain. CROSS Topic Papers are similar to CROSS Safety Alerts, but are aimed at presenting safety information which is considered to be less critical and time sensitive. Further, CROSS Theme Pages are used to present content around a particular topic, while CROSS Reviews afford the opportunity to reflect on past work and look to the future.

Professionals can make effective use of such information as part of their continual learning and development, to improve their knowledge of safety for their own specialism, remain up-to-date with emerging safety issues, find out more about Best Practice and share the knowledge gained with their team.

CROSS-UK was already well embedded in the structural engineering profession when Alastair first approached me. With little explanation, it became clearly apparent that CROSS-UK is something more than merely a system designed to receive confidential safety reports.

The pertinent point to note here is that it’s a key piece of a jigsaw puzzle picture that describes a good culture. Culture is something that Dame Judith Hackitt has pointed towards and a word so very pertinent when considering how to develop an effective building safety system.

Fire safety and CROSS

The fire safety sector harbours nothing in any way similar to CROSS-UK. The UK approach to fire safety over the last four decades has changed quite dramatically. It has gone from being almost totally owned and managed in a prescriptive manner by the Fire Brigades to a much more diverse, goal-based, self-compliant and complex process.

In that same period, the bodies responsible for providing fire-safe buildings, the people in the system and the materials used have also changed dramatically. However, there has been little put in place to bring them all together and look at the efficacy of the whole system. The expansion of CROSS-UK to include reporting on fire safety is a key step that will support fire sector learning, affording a route for professionals to safely share lessons that need to be learned and provide some oversight of the health of the fire safety system in general.

In terms of a given building’s life cycle, fire has to be considered at the design, construction and occupation stages. The ownership and responsibility for compliance can change at each of them. In tandem, the regulatory regimes for the design, construction, materials and management can sit with different bodies, different regulators and under different Government departments.

Institutions central to the fire sector for decades now have been changed or lost. Throughout this period, fire deaths have fallen dramatically, witnessing what is probably one of the biggest improvements in headline performance of any sector. In broad terms, a reduction from an average of around one thousand deaths per year in the 1970s and 1980s to around 300 per annum across the UK in the present day.

Thankfully, very few of us will suffer the loss of a friend or relative due to fire in our lifetime. However, the Grenfell Tower episode absolutely demonstrated that we must not become complacent. The hundreds of tall buildings clad in a similar manner could have led to similar disasters, with potentially more unidentified failings yet to be revealed by the Public Inquiry process. Dame Judith Hackitt has pointed out many areas that could be improved, one of them being that there’s a need for a knowledge hub. CROSS can be that hub.

Broad role of CROSS

Elaborating on the information outlined previously, CROSS has a number of functions. It provides a route for a conscientious professional to tell others about something they’re concerned about or to share something they have learned. The information they provide can be analysed by an Expert Panel that holds knowledge sufficient to identify the importance of the information and what lessons need to be learned. The same Expert Panel then sits back and looks at the system, duly interpreting how it’s working and what needs to be done to maintain its effectiveness.

All of this is reliant on trust, integrity and a level of transparency. In essence, the focus is very much on the right people doing the right thing at the right time. Building, developing and maintaining a good culture. CROSS is well established, trusted and, thankfully, open to sharing the learning about the process with colleagues in the fire sector.

Importantly, over 1,000 reports have been submitted to CROSS and the analysis has fed into many CROSS Newsletters. Where appropriate, safety alerts have been disseminated to give a heads up, hopefully averting repeat scenarios that might lead to tragedies.

Many of the structural safety reports submitted to CROSS emanate from members of the Institution of Structural Engineers (IStructE) or the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE). Those who might learn from the reports are also primarily members of those same professional bodies. In contrast, the fire safety sector has many different potential sources for reports and outlets for learning.

The IFE welcomed the chance to work with CROSS to provide a similar process for fire safety. After immersing myself in CROSS to learn precisely what makes it tick, I was able to visit – pre-COVID, thankfully – many of the main influencers in the fire sector and alert them to the opportunity that was being created. Feedback was given on the perceived need for CROSS and to identify any barriers. The response was overwhelming. It would appear that, in  relation to the fire safety domain, CROSS is both needed and welcomed.

Partner to structural safety

It isn’t a huge leap in some respects. CROSS has received reports relating to fire safety matters. These were generally in the space where fire safety and structural safety come together. Current issues around the use of mass timber for structural elements brings engineering challenges to both professions. However, there has been no formal interface to bring the two together in a safe space where concerns and ideas can be shared and explored.

The formation of a CROSS-UK Fire Safety Expert Panel and regular planned events that bring them together with the CROSS-UK Structural Safety Expert Panel provides the opportunity to feed informed opinion into the building safety system. Dr Peter Wilkinson and myself have been engaged as ‘Designated People’ for CROSS-UK to carry out the initial analysis and report collation. Peter will be known to many of Fire Safety Matters’ readers as technical director for the IFE and is trusted across the sector. Between us, we have links to most of the pieces of the fire safety jigsaw.

A significant outcome of the re-launch of CROSS is its change of name. CROSS as an acronym is recognised, trusted and valued. It was previously known as Structural-Safety which had two parts: the Standing Committee on Structural Safety (SCOSS) and Confidential Reporting on Structural Safety (CROSS). Structural-Safety, SCOSS and CROSS are now integrated under the new name, Collaborative Reporting for Safer Structures. User research showed that the industry welcomed the acronym standing for the new name as a way to both allow CROSS to broaden its remit into the fire safety domain and also to reflect the integrated way in which professionals collaborate for a common purpose.

The new CROSS has just been launched. For the founders, it marks a step forward in assuring the future of a body that has done a great job to date, underpinned by support from the IStructE, ICE and the Health and Safety Executive. During the last few years, the success of CROSS here in the UK has resulted in the establishment of CROSS in Australasia (CROSS-AUS) and also in the USA (CROSS-US).

The fire sector is re-shaping as it continues to recover from the horror of the Grenfell Tower tragedy. By dint of today’s practising professionals actively supporting and becoming involved with CROSS, at least part of Dame Judith Hackitt’s culture jigsaw will slot neatly into place.

Neil Gibbins QFSM NDipM FIFireE is Lead Fire Safety Consultant at CROSS UK and Director of GIB Fire Risk Services (www.cross-safety.org)