Issues, remedies & solutions
Issues that affect fire safety within the modern built environment were discussed at the ASFP Parliamentary seminar on 4 December, 2013.
Delegates from across the fire sector and wider built environment gathered in the House of Commons on 4 December to attend Understanding Fire Safety in Buildings, an Association for Specialist Fire Protection (ASFP) Parliamentary Seminar, held in conjunction with the All Party Parliamentary Fire & Rescue Group and the Fire Sector Federation (FSF). The event assembled experts from across the fire sector, to consider issues that affect fire safety within the modern built environment and to investigate how to ensure that appropriate fire protection is designed, specified, installed and maintained throughout the life of a building.
Arranged into three sessions, the seminar attracted a wide ranging audience from across the built environment, the fire service, government, parliamentary MPs and Lords and addressed key topics of concern relating to fire engineering; the structure and management of buildings; and competency.
Fire Minister Brandon Lewis MP provided the opening address in which he declared that fire prevention and protection were now seen as the front line for fire and rescue services. He stated that there had been a 35% reduction in domestic fatalities over the last 10 years and examined how this level of reduction could be maintained and improved. He highlighted the importance of collaboration across the fire sector and recognised the work that was being undertaken by the Fire Sector Federation to improve the competency of fire risk assessors.
“That there are now registers of fire risk assessors whose competency for the job has been independently certified against a common standard is a major achievement. The sector should be proud of this and see it as the first step on the journey towards a more collaborative and supportive environment,” he declared.
He asked how this could now be developed, introducing the concept of ‘earned recognition’, whereby the administrative burden of regulation on those who have a strong track record of reliability and adherence to standards could be reduced.
“If enforcement authorities take a different approach to enforcement where they see that businesses have followed competent advice – or indeed invested in third party certified safety products – then businesses are likely to be more inclined to invest in such advice or products in the future. This, in turn, allows authorities to divert their resources to those who choose to ignore their duties altogether.”
Fire engineering challenges
The first session seminar session focused on issues relating to fire engineering, with reductions in levels of installed fire protection and the impact of modern materials and modern methods of construction, highlighted as the main concerns.
Allister Smith of Aviva Insurance said that, although fire deaths were falling, insurers were concerned at increasing fire losses, which are at the highest level ever experienced since records began, totalling some £3.4 million per day.
Explaining that the use of new materials and modern methods of construction are resulting in greater volatility to fire, Mr Smith declared:
“We are being told that that we are not dealing with a fire in a building but we are actually dealing with a building that is on fire.”
He said that, from a property protection viewpoint, commercial buildings which only comply with statutory regulations are under-protected, since legislation is only concerned with life safety. While recognising that fire safety engineering is often the only practical way to achieve a suitable level of fire safety in large and complex buildings, Mr Smith questioned who sets the design objectives and who is consulted.
Declaring that design teams often only consider life safety, he suggested that they should engage more widely with clients, insurers and the wider fire sector.
“Although life safety is of most importance, a solution that focuses exclusively on life safety can have a detrimental effect on commercial property and business protection,” he said.
“I recognise that fire engineering is not the problem but more the goals set at the outset. If you set goals for life safety sometimes you will see everything being stripped down to the minimum.”
Kevin Hulin, Chairman of the Fire Resistant Glazing Group of the Glass and Glazing Federation continued this theme, suggesting that fire engineering often becomes an excuse for value engineering. He reported that fire resistant glazing is often replaced and supplemented with other features and showed a video which clearly demonstrated how quickly standard toughened glass will fail in the event of a fire.
Neal Butterworth of Arup Fire considered the importance of good practice in fire engineering. He echoed the earlier words of Mr Smith, confirming that compliance with code only covers life safety:
“Engineering is about developing solutions that meet goals within constraints and surely what we should be doing is setting the correct fire safety goals at the beginning of a project and engineering to meet all those goals,” he said, adding that, regardless of whether you are applying a code compliant or engineering solution, the correct competencies must be applied throughout the process.
“Adopting code cannot be used as an alternative to not applying the correct competencies. Engineering is actually about delivering a building that can be operated and run safely. It has to include design, construction and maintenance of buildings for safety,” he declared.
Mr Butterworth highlighted the many opportunities for disjoint in the construction process which could result in the integrity of the design to be lost.
“We are finding that buildings aren’t being built properly. It doesn’t matter how well a building is designed, whether you’ve use a prescriptive code or an engineered solution, if you don’t build it correctly then you won’t get the safety that you need. The cost of putting things right is way more expensive than doing it correctly in the first place.”
He said that contractors have to understand the intent of the design and end-users must then run and operate the building. Raising the issue of changing materials and construction processes, Mr Butterworth called for regulations to be developed that reflect modern guidance for modern buildings.
A lively question and answer session followed in which Mr Butterworth suggested that, unlike in other engineering fields, such as structural engineering, the competency of fire engineers, was seldom challenged. He said that clients and contractors needed to understand that fire engineering is not about reducing costs but looking at overall costs across the entire lifecycle of a building.
Building structure and management
The structure and management of buildings was the theme for the next session. Rapid and unexpected fire spread due to changing building materials and modern methods of construction were highlighted by BRE Global’s David Crowder and Hampshire Deputy Chief Fire Officer Dave Curry.
Both described how such construction types, when combined with poorly specified, installed and maintained fire protection, had resulted in major fire incidents, leading to tragic loss of life or significant damage.
Mr Curry explained that firefighting tactics were dictated by the building layout and nature of construction and that firefighters can only be committed if they understand how a building will behave.
“We seem to test for fire in isolation of each construction and don’t know how the building will behave when all put together,” he declared, suggesting that more research into trends in modern methods of construction was necessary.
He said that the Fire Sector Federation was the ideal body to examine the lifecycle of buildings identify the weak links but said that the fire service also has a role to play. Noting that analysis only tended to take place after major incidents involving loss of life, Mr Curry stated:
“We can learn from every experience. The best time to learn is not when in front of a burning building or in a coroner’s court.”
Mr Crowder highlighted the essential need for building owners, occupiers and risk assessors to understand and maintain the systems installed throughout a building’s lifecycle. He described several case studies where poor installation had resulted in a major incident or destruction of a building. He noted that the same issues keep cropping up, including concerns with the quality of work that goes into the building; and the lack of Regulation 38 information being passed to the risk assessor and end user in a building.
“If a fire risk assessor does not know what is in the building, how can he carry out an effective risk assessment?” he asked.
Peter Gannaway of the National Social Housing Fire Strategy Group explained why such a fire risk assessment should be a vital part of management policy. He said that a suitable and sufficient assessment is a business tool which allows for like risks to be grouped so that controls can be introduced to ensure the safety of residents in a most cost effective manner.
“From a housing management perspective, the fire safety management system should go on to recommend implementation and monitoring measures to provide confidence of ongoing control,” he declared.
“We believe a simple way of identifying competence, such as the introduction of a fire safe register, and improved training for those charged with daily management of safety precautions would improve fire safety. The improved application of existing requirements in Regulation 38 is overdue and if applied correctly would assist assessors in their task of producing a suitable and sufficient risk assessment.”
After lunch, Jim Glockling, technical director of the Fire Protection Association, considered the need to design in business resilience. While recognising that organisations should understand where their businesses vulnerabilities lie, Dr Glocking argued that there was still a role for government and called for for improvements in fire safety legislation for three key types of building:
- those where the loss of public services can result in damaging and distressful interruption, such as schools and old people’s homes;
- those where the occupier has had no ‘choice’ in the construction of the building in which they live but whose safety can be impacted upon by other occupiers of the building, such as social housing and prisons; and
- very large premises where the potential environmental, financial, and infrastructure damage is great, such as warehousing and large industrial facilities.
“We have building codes that stop at life safety, which leaves us with a commercial estate under protected by mandated law in comparison to our European cousins,” he declared.
“Why not legislate to ensure the safety, quality of life, and continuity in education and employment, of those without choice?”
Association for Specialist Fire Protection CEO Wilf Butcher highlighted the general lack of understanding and awareness of fire safety, commenting:
“If you have little understanding of the real dangers posed by fire and smoke, how can you recognise the seriousness of getting it wrong?” he asked.
He stated that the problems start from a building’s inception where a value engineering approach may be adopted, through construction, where the desire of the builder is to cut his costs to the minimum, and into occupation, where dealing with a blocked toilet is seen as a priority issue, but the repair of a broken fire door is seen as no more than an inconvenience.
Calling on the industry to work together to improve levels of understanding, Mr Butcher declared:
“How we defeat the destructive power of fire is solely dependent on how we, in the Built Environment and the Regulators can work together to establish building design, construction and maintenance that is effective for the life of the building.”
He said that the formation of the Fire Sector Federation has created an opportunity to bring together all those with a specific involvement in fire, to develop initiatives and create awareness.
The afternoon session considered competency. Dennis Davis CBE of the Fire Sector Federation (FSF) provided an overview of the FSF’s work to improve competency. He explained changing construction practice and materials were placing ever greater demands for competency on all those engaged in the fire process.
Mr Davis explained that, through consultation with a broad range of stakeholders from every stage of a building’s lifecycle, the FSF had identified key areas of weakness in working practices and identified fire safety managers and management as a key target audience. He outlined several actions that the FSF planned to take including improving enforcement by commenting on the revisions of the Procedural Guidance and BS 9999, as well as seeking to promote wider knowledge and use of Regulation 38. The FS would also conduct a review of the responsibilities of all under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order (RRFSO) and seek out organisations, such as property portfolio management associations and similar groups with which to work.
Mike Wood, Chairman of the Passive Fire Protection Federation, carried forward the outcomes from the recent Fire Summit workshop which proposed the creation of a National Fire Safe Register to gather in one place existing certification schemes for installers and registered fire risk assessors.
Mr Wood said there appeared to be strong support for such a move, citing an online survey conducted by BM TRADA which had found over 90% of respondents in favour. He explained that correct installation and maintenance of fire safety systems was vital, particularly as changing building materials and practices meant that buildings are generally becoming far less robust.
With the RRFSO placing fire safety responsibilities on a wide range of groups from building owners, risk assessors, safety and facilities managers to the manufacturing, design, specification, installation, maintenance and refurbishment chain, Mr Wood declared that a National Fire Safe Register would help these groups ensure they are receiving professional support.
“A national fire safety register is the natural next step. And I trust that the fire safety sector through the Fire Sector Federation will plan to take it. As the responsible body I don’t see how we can avoid that step. It is a simply an obligation to those who rely on fire safety,” he said.
Sir Ken Knight CBE QFSM FIFireE and Cllr Mark Healey, Chairman of Devon & Somerset Fire & Rescue Authority examined fire safety awareness for landlords. Noting that the fire sector was still awaiting the Government’s response to the Facing the Future Review, Sir Ken Knight said that much had been done to drive down fire deaths but the number of deaths in the rental sector remained disproportionately high. Cllr Healy explained how the FireMark scheme aimed to address this problem by providing a free interactive tool, which educates and offers advice to private sector landlords.
Summing up the day, Fire Industry Association CEO Graham Ellicott observed that a great deal had been done to improve fire safety within the built environment but declared there was still a great deal more to do and that the fire sector was best placed to formulate remedies and solutions.
For information on ASFP initiatives and to access the ASFP’s extensive range of free to view guidance documents and videos, visit the ASFP website, www.asfp.org.uk.