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The benefits and pitfalls of fire risk assessment

The benefits and pitfalls of fire risk assessment

The ubiquitous ‘risk assessment’ seems to pervade all aspects of the practise of both health and safety and fire safety. The wording ‘…depending on a risk assessment’ has become a cliché, with some clients even demanding a risk assessment for the activity of carrying out a fire risk assessment, while if you ask any enforcing authority as to their opinion on the acceptability of some modification or alteration, and the advice is to carry out a risk assessment.

However, the fire risk assessment now required by fire safety legislation, as reformed in Great Britain in 2006, has brought about some fresh thinking in the matching of fire precautions to risk, even though some enforcing authorities still favour the safety of a ‘one size fits all’ prescriptive approach. Certainly, there is significant contrast between, for example, certification of premises under the Fire Precautions Act 1971 and the implementation of the action plan in a suitable and sufficient fire risk assessment.

Two of the main contrasts are quite fundamental. Firstly, regardless of the intent of those producing Government guidance on the standards to be applied for the purpose of fire certification, there was undoubtedly a tendency for the guidance documents to be applied as a set of ‘rules’, such that low risk premises were burdened with almost identical fire precautions to those in high risk premises, in respect of which, equally, the precautions might only be barely adequate. A properly conducted fire risk assessment, while using guidance as a form of ‘benchmark’, has the potential to better match the fire precautions to the risk. This potential has not yet fully come to pass; the true process of fire risk assessment is still in its relative infancy, and both enforcing authorities and fire risk assessors are reluctant to depart from guidance to an extent that might, so it is feared, be regarded as too radical.

Secondly, if we take the modern definition of fire risk, namely the likelihood that fire will occur in combination with the consequences if it does occur.  With hindsight, the Fire Precautions Act only addressed one half of the problem; the traditional ‘four means’ required by the Act (means of escape, means for securing the means of escape, means of giving warning of fire and means for fighting fire) were effective in mitigating the consequences of fire, but did nothing to prevent fire. A fire risk assessment is much more akin to a health and safety risk assessment, in that a first step is to identify the hazards (causes of fire) and, consequently, the measures to prevent the occurrence of fire, so constituting a more holistic approach to minimising fire risk. It took some time for property insurers to appreciate that, in this respect, fire safety legislation, previously considered by insurers to address life risk but not property risk, could reduce property losses by reducing the likelihood of fire.

So has the brave new world of reformed fire safety legislation, and the fire risk assessment process that it has brought about, really created a world that is safer from fire? Almost certainly not! Indeed, there was, arguably, little potential for it to do so. Well before the reform of fire safety legislation, deaths from fire in the non-domestic premises, to which the reformed legislation applies, were very small in number. The simple law of diminishing returns meant that there was little scope to reduce such fire deaths.

Much criticism can, and has been, levelled at the Fire Precautions Act. It was anomalous in relation to all other safety legislation, in that the occupiers of commercial premises could virtually abdicate responsibility for fire safety in their premises, simply sitting back, sometimes in premises with significant risk, until the fire and rescue service came along and, in effect, not only provided free consultancy advice, but prepared what, today, we would call a fire strategy for the premises; this hardly encouraged occupiers to take responsibility for fire safety in their own premises.

Also, as I suggested earlier, guidance under the Act was, arguably, applied too prescriptively. It cannot be denied that this sometimes meant unnecessary expenditure on fire precautions and requirements that could be regarded as little short of plain silly. However, there was an important other side of the coin. It would be extremely rare for any fire and rescue service officer to certificate premises in which occupants were exposed to any material risk of harm from fire! Basically, the Fire Precautions Act ‘worked’. It did what it was supposed to do, particularly in reducing deaths from fire in hotels from a level at which the risk of death from fire by staying one night in a hotel was more than ten times that of staying at home for the night to the current situation in which any death from fire in a hotel is an extremely rare event.

Can we rely on the fire risk assessments carried out today to safeguard against the serious multiple fatality fires that have now all but disappeared? Experience would suggest not. Fire risk assessment has been a major growth industry, a bandwagon onto which all and sundry have jumped, often without even a reasonable understanding of even the basic principles of fire safety. Fire risk assessments are now carried out, on a commercial basis, by those from other disciplines involving inspection of buildings, with fire risk assessment simply regarded as an add on service, or, even worse, by those with no background in even building construction or fire protection.

A poor fire risk assessment, carried out by someone without adequate competence in fire safety, can sometimes be even worse than no fire risk assessment, in that it can be a basis for unwarranted complacency. In the UK, the most serious loss of life from fire in nearly twenty years occurred at a care home in Scotland, at which fourteen elderly and infirm residents died in a fire. In the resulting Fatal Accident Inquiry (FAI), it was alleged that an owner of the home was known to describe it as ‘a very safe home’, which clearly transpired not to be the case. The fire risk assessment commissioned by the owners did little or nothing to alert the owners to risks that would have been quite obvious to a competent fire risk assessor; the FAI determined that not only would a suitable and sufficient fire risk assessment have had the potential to prevent some, or even all, of the deaths, it could, more fundamentally, have lead to prevention of the fire.

Less dramatically, the level of prosecutions under fire safety legislation in England has rocketed since the reform of fire safety legislation (though this is not the case in Scotland, perhaps as a result of the strong commitment of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service to engage with errant landlords and employers, as well as the filter of the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service in Scotland, who would not wish to entertain a number of prosecutions brought by fire and rescue services in England).

Even allowing for what sometimes seems to me to be the wild imagination of some fire and rescue authorities and the lawyers they instruct as to the risk of death or serious injury from minor breaches of legislation (such as the absence of a running man from a fire exit sign), there can be no doubt that failures to complete a suitable and sufficient fire risk assessment by commercial fire risk assessors have validly led to prosecution of the fire risk assessors’ clients and indeed the fire risk assessors themselves. This has led to penalties imposed on fire risk assessors by the criminal courts, ranging from a caution through fines or community service to a period of eight months imprisonment. There is no doubt that further prosecutions will occur and that fire risk assessors will leave themselves exposed to civil action by clients accused of breaches and offences resulting from inadequate fire risk assessments.

The matter of competence of fire risk assessors has become the big issue in fire safety. There is gradual recognition of the value of registration and certification schemes for fire risk assessors. These comprise ‘person’ schemes and company schemes, the latter requiring not only the use of competent fire risk assessors by the certificated firm, but a quality management system within the company, including independent checking of fire risk assessments before they are submitted to the client.

In Northern Ireland, RQIA, who are responsible for the registration of care homes in the province, demand that fire risk assessments for care homes be carried out either by a person registered or certificated as competent, or, preferably, by a company that is third party certificated under a UKAS accredited certification scheme. This resonates with the advice of the Fire Risk Assessment Competency Council (a group of 35 stakeholders in the fire safety and allied professions), namely that, if a dutyholder uses a third party to carry out their fire risk assessment, they should use the services of a firm certificated under a UKAS accredited scheme.

There are now four ‘person’ schemes, namely those operated by The Institution of Fire Engineers (IFE), The Institute of Fire Safety Managers (IFSM), The Institute of Fire Prevention Officers (IFPO) and Warrington Certification. These schemes provide pools of competent fire risk assessors, the largest of which is that of the IFE, which only very recently registered its two hundredth fire risk assessor.

With regard to company schemes, there are now a number of UKAS-accredited certification bodies, who can offer certification of companies that carry out fire risk assessments. The largest scheme is that published by BAFE as their SP 205 scheme, which can be offered by three certification bodies, namely NSI, SSAIB and Certsure, but certification schemes are also offered by IFC Certification and Warrington Certification.

Use of third party certificated persons and companies not only provides reassurance to those in need of suitable and sufficient fire risk assessments, but the use of these fire risk assessors may well, one day, assist in establishing a defence of due diligence if things go badly wrong!

Colin Todd is the Managing Director of C.S. Todd & Associates Ltd, an independent fire consulting practice, specialising solely in fire safety and fire engineering. Much of Colin’s work involves acting as an expert witness and delivering specialist training. He is regularly retained as an expert witness in enforcement and prosecution cases associated with fire, either by the enforcing authority or Defendants. PAS 79, which has become virtually the industry standard for fire risk assessment, was his personal brainchild, and his company continues to author this BSI publication. Colin serves on a number of British Standard Committees, is a Board member of the Fire Industry Association, Chairman of the FIA Fire Risk Assessment Council and the author of a number of books on fire safety, published by the British Standards Institution.

Published October 2015