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Where fire is concerned, honesty is the best policy

Where fire is concerned, honesty is the best policy

”The trite saying that honesty is the best policy has met with the just criticism that honesty is not policy. The real honest man is honest from conviction of what is right, not from policy.”
Robert E Lee, famous American Civil War commander

What amounts to fire policy, fire risk management strategy and procedure is not well understood and so many fire safety professionals struggle to get it right.

Fire safety managers and consultants often confuse and blend policy, strategy and procedure and end up drafting a so-called ‘policy’ document that could make the Yellow Pages look like a memo. The vast majority of fire policy documents we see are full of good intentions that do not result in meaningful guidance, robust strategy or effective procedure.

The law states “The responsible person must take general fire precautions as will ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the safety of any of his employees and in relation to relevant persons, take such general fire precautions as may reasonably be required in the circumstances of the case to ensure that the premises are safe.”[1]

It goes on to talk about fire safety arrangement: “The responsible person must make and give effect to such arrangements as are appropriate, having regard to the size of his undertaking and the nature of its activities, for the effective planning, organisation, control, monitoring and review of the preventative and protective measures.”[2]  Crucially he must record the arrangements where he employs more than five persons or he is responsible for licensed premises, or he is the subject of an alterations notice issued by a fire authority.

The term ‘fire policy’ is defined as: “The intentions and direction of an organisation, in respect of fire safety, as formally expressed by its top management.”[3]

Can you combine fire with health and safety?

It is possible to combine fire with a health and safety policy statement but organisations must acknowledge that Health and Safety and Fire Risk Management, whilst both being risk-based disciplines, are uniquely different, with differing compliance drivers, and impacting upon duty holders within their organisations to differing extents dependent on roles. It is useful to think of policy as a ‘What and Why’ statement of intent.  Here are seven key points to look for in an organisation’s fire policy:

  • It should be appropriate to the purpose of the organisation;
  • It should provide a framework for setting objectives;
  • It should include a commitment to satisfying applicable requirements;
  • t should include a commitment to continual improvement;
  • It should be available as documented information.
  • The organisation should review it at planned intervals
  • A person authorised by top management should sign and authorise the fire safety policy.

The term ‘Fire Risk Management Strategy’ is “A document which defines an organisations fire risk management system and method of implementing the overarching policy”[4].  I like to think of this as the “How, Who and When” document.A well written Fire Risk Management Strategy will (as a minimum) address the following seven factors of Strategic Fire Risk Management:

  • Fire Risk Assessment
  • Resources and Authority
  • Fire Safety Training
  • Control of work onsite
  • Maintenance and testing
  • Communication
  • Emergency planning

Context, needs and expectations

The strategy should also convey the context of the organisation and the needs and expectations of interested parties. These may include employees, tenants, leaseholders, insurance companies, contractors, enforcing authorities etc.The strategy will set out roles, responsibilities and accountabilities within the organisation. It will take into account the capabilities and necessary competencies required.  Finally it should describe the organisation’s approach to monitoring, measurement, analysis and evaluation.

Ultimately the organisation’s Fire Risk Management Strategy will be reviewed with a view to continually improving the suitability, adequacy and effectiveness of its Fire Risk Management System.

The term ‘Procedure’ is defined as a “specified way to carry out an activity or a process” and in turn a ‘Process’ is defined as a “set of interrelated or interacting activities which transforms inputs into outputs”.Winston Churchill once said: “However beautiful the strategy you should occasionally look at the results”.

When auditing fire risk management systems, it has been a privilege to review the fire policies and procedures of many high profile organisations and some of the world’s most recognised brands.  However, too many organisations have policies and procedures which do not represent what actually happens on the ground.

Unmitigated liabilities

Many organisations have realised that to undertake a fire risk assessment programme, yet not to tackle the outcomes of those fire risk assessments, may leave them with a shelf, or file full, of potential liabilities, in that they have identified risks and failed to mitigate them.

On the same basis having policies and procedures that do not reflect what an organisation actually does, also presents a huge risk of liability to an organisation in the event of prosecution.  As mentioned above the law states the responsible person must do what is reasonably practicable, and if an organisation establishes policy and procedures then it is very difficult to argue that its own policies and procedures were not reasonably practicable following an incident.

The prosecution’s case may simply be:  “you felt this reasonably practicable at the time they were drafted”. Ultimately, to have policies and procedures and not follow them, regardless of whether they are still appropriate for the organisation, will leave an organisation exposed to potentially unlimited liability if they were to be found negligent.

In summary, if you have something that purports to be a policy, strategy, or procedure, make sure it is accurate, appropriate, and sufficient, and if it says you will do something to mitigate fire risk, make sure you do it.

[1] Article 8, The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005

[2] Article 11, The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005

[3] PAS 7: 2013 – Fire Risk Management System Specification

[4] PAS 7: 2013 – Fire Risk Management System Specification