Building safety and guidance in the time of Covid

The Fire 2020 Conference was like no other, taking place exclusively online due to the Covid-19 restrictions. But thanks to online conferencing facilities, speakers and delegates were able to beam in from around the globe without leaving their desks.

This year’s conference focused on some of the most pressing issues in fire safety being debated, including the Building Safety Bill, ensuring fire safety in modern methods of construction and the importance of sprinklers.

The conference began with a welcome from Jonathan O’Neill OBE, Managing Director of the Fire Protection Association (see pg 59 for Mr O’Neill’s address). He introduced Lord Stephen Greenhalgh, Minister of State for Fire, who gave an update on the progress of the Building Safety Bill.

Lord Stephen Greenhalgh,  Minister of State for Fire

“It is a fundamental right that all people in regulated premises feel safe and are safe from fire regardless of where they live, stay or work,” he said. “I’m committed to ensuring that our reforms are driven by effectiveness and deliver on the concerns and needs of those involved.”

The Fire Safety Bill is now at an advanced stage, with the committee stage having taken place on October 29. The Fire Safety Bill clarifies under the Fire Safety Order responsible persons for multiple occupied residential buildings must assess the fire safety risk for the structure, external walls and protection doors, Lord Greenhalgh said.

“The Fire Safety Bill and consultation are important steps in a major programme on building and fire safety. And we’ll give effect to a manifesto commitment to implement the recommendations of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry Phase 1 One alongside this.

He continued by emphasising that the publication of the draft Building Safety Bill represents a significant step in the most comprehensive programme of electrical performance building safety in a generation: “This Bill will create the first National Building Safety Regulator, which currently exists in shadow home in the Health and Safety Executive, and will overhaul the way buildings are designed, built and managed in occupation.

“Our reforms would empower residents to help building owners and managers to account for ensuring safety and that voices are heard.”

Lord Greenhalgh then turned to the Grenfell Tower Public Inquiry Phase One recommendations. He noted that at the time of publication, the government had accepted the recommendations in principle, and the Conservative Party manifesto committed them to implement them where appropriate. “Building on a foundation provided by the Fire Safety Bill, we consulted on proposals to implement the Inquiry’s recommendations as part of the fire safety consultation.”

The objective of the proposals is to ensure fire and rescue services have the right information about high-rise residential buildings, to provide an effective operational response and a further step change in ensuring the safety of residents in their homes. “It is critical that we get this right; we must listen to the views of those who have the experience or some concern surrounding these issues, including those who have been personally affected by the Grenfell Tower tragedy,” said Lord Greenhalgh.

“Only then can we deliver lasting, significant change. In many cases, our proposals go further than the Inquiry’s recommendations. Taken together, the Fire Safety Bill, the Building Safety Bill and the Fire Safety Consultation will significantly improve building and fire safety standards. While progressing these much-needed reforms, we are focusing on what can be done now to ensure the safety of buildings in this year’s budget.

“I am clear on the need to improve fire safety across all buildings, not just high-rise residential blocks. That is at the heart of our reform and our commitment to enhance the protection capability of fire and rescue services,” Lord Greenhalgh concluded.

Roy Wilsher, Chair of the NFCC

He was followed by Roy Wilsher, Chair of the National Fire Chiefs Council, who introduced the newly formed Protection Reform Unit. “We had a Building Safety Team that had been working with MHCLG (Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government) and the Home Office on the new regulations. Following some investment from government we have now set up a dedicated team which is filling up with experts.”

The team has several aims, including giving government and other partners technical advice on issues such as building remediation for new bills going through and supporting fire and rescue services across the country with how they deal with fire safety issues, Mr Wilsher added.

Plans are also afoot to introduce national protection guidance: “We have already set up a Fire Safety Competency Framework and are looking at regional work in those things fire services don’t do by themselves very often – enforce, legislation, prosecution, fire engineering. Not only looking to the problems we face now but also the capability and competence of the Fire and Rescue Service going forward.

“We have a plethora of work going on in buildings. We are working hard, as many of you are, to really overcome decades of building safety failure.”

Mr Wilsher then turned to address Lord Greenhalgh’s comments. The NFCC gave evidence at the committee stage of the Building Safety Bill and Mr Wilsher said he was happy that it was not just looking at fire safety but also building safety and bringing in stronger regulation over them.

“The Fire Safety Order, we have done our consultation response: we would like it introduced all in one go and I think it has now been agreed,” said Mr Wilsher. “I [also] don’t think it should be introduced without proper professional guidance for those who might have to apply it.”

Mr Wilsher added that the NFCC didn’t agree with everything in the Building Safety Bill, such as the scope of it. “The fact that high-rise buildings over 18 metres are immediately equated with high risk is not right in our view,” he said. “High-rise doesn’t necessarily mean high risk. Height can be factor but so can many other things – the state of the building, how it is built, how it is maintained, the occupancy. We would like the scope extended to places where vulnerable people – people who might need assistance to evacuate – reside such as care homes, hospitals and sheltered housing.”

Mr Wilsher also called for more clarity, especially with the secondary legislation. “There is no clarity on the overlapping provisions of the Housing Act and the Fire Safety Act – how will those be dealt with?”

Mark Farmer – Building Homes

Mr Wilsher was followed by Mark Farmer from Cast Consultancy, who delivered a talk entitled ‘Modern Methods of Construction – The Future’, explaining why he thinks we need to find a new way to build homes in this country and, in doing that, how to navigate the issues of policy, innovation and risk that are relevant to the fire safety sector.

Mr Farmer noted that the issue of poorly constructed new build housing has been in the headlines over the past five years or so, some of which is linked to poor productivity in the construction industry, declining skills and poor behaviour around procurement – and a resultant race to the bottom to drive prices down – which can lead to fire safety risks.  

Throw in the need to decarbonise the industry and recover from the Covid-19 pandemic and there is a need “to question how we build and look fundamentally at how we build in a different way.”

Mr Farmer added there was now political will to force the industry to look differently at building and prioritise quality over quantity, in addition to the fire safety debate and the drive to reduce carbon emissions.

While the construction industry has changed in the past 20 years, more needs to be done, Mr Farmer added. “You need to combine technical standards, competence and better assurance with a cultural change in how we go about designing, commissioning, designing and building those assets.

“In the last ten to 15 years, quite a lot of [innovation] has gone on in the design side of what we do as an industry. [For instance] the use of 3D models is very well accepted now. But as you move into the construction process through procurement, you go through competitive tendering in a normal way. So irrespective of detailed design using digital platforms, we procure in a very backward way to the lowest price. And then when you get to site, we are insistent on using these labour-intensive processes that involve lots of people doing things in an unstructured, analogue way.

“That’s why we have to move towards more automated working. We have to link manufacturing to a whole suite of digital tools on site that better assure the outcomes that we’re driving at. And inherent in that is fire safety.”

Mr Farmer wants a system of proper accreditation for building components, where they are signed off for quality before leaving the factory – similar to the automotive and aerospace industries. Then there is the issue of using materials like timber, steel and concrete in a world that is trying to decarbonise – or in which scenarios these can be used.

“We need change,” said Mr Farmer in conclusion. “We need business model change, we need behavioural change, we need process change. My view is that construction of a vital part of that, but it needs to be done right.”

Daniel Madrykowski – Modern Construction Challenges

The following presentation carried on in a similar vein, with Daniel Madrykowski, senior research engineer, UL Firefighter Safety Research Institute, talking about the challenges of modern methods of construction and fire safety.

Mr Madrykowski noted that new energy and insulating technologies have come onto the market in recent years that perhaps have not taken fire issues fully into account.

New construction methods mean that potentially fires are larger, faster or hotter, which can result in flashover quicker, which means that there’s shorter time to escape if you’re inside the building, Mr Madrykowski said. In addition, given lightweight construction and some of the engineered lumber designs, it could mean it takes a shorter time for them to collapse.

Mr Madrykowski then explained how the average size of homes has increased in terms of square meterage over the past 50 years in the US, yet lot sizes have got smaller. “So we have bigger houses that are closer together so if the fire escapes the first house, by the time the fire department gets there, they could have two or three adjacent structures involved in fire where that typically wasn’t the case 20, 30 years ago,” he said.

The inside of homes has also changed in the past half century, and not in a good way in terms of fire safety, Mr Madrykowski added. “We like more open spaces, open floor plan design and again, for everyday life that’s perfect, that allows more functionality of the space, it allows more connectivity within the home for the family. The bad news is when there’s a fire in a home, a fire in the living room can rapidly push smoke and heat into the upper level where the bedrooms are without any compartmentation, there’s nothing to restrict the flow of the toxic gases, heat or flames or slow them down before they reach the bedroom area.”

Likewise, furniture in homes can also contribute to fires – from fabric-covered sofas to fridges encased in metal and steel with insulating plastic.

“That’s why it’s important to incorporate the fire services’ experience in understanding fire hazards and understanding trends,” Mr Madrykowski added.

New technologies that contain Lithium-ion batteries, for example, can also increase the hazards for firefighters. “We have had several incidents in the United States where there’s been a thermal runaway in a Lithium-ion battery pack, and that has challenged the protection systems that are built into current energy storage systems and in some cases have resulted in injury to firefighters that responded when the systems have exploded.”

But there is a solution to all these increases in danger, Mr Madrykowski added – sprinkler systems. “In a series of experiments, temperatures got to untenable levels very quickly, and oxygen levels fell to levels where humans would go unconscious rapidly in all cases except for when sprinklers were used,” he said.

Tom Roche – Standards and Sprinklers

Tom Roche, Senior Consultant, International Codes and Standards at FM Global, also believes sprinklers have an important role in future housing and will be part of building regulations, as he said in his talk: “What role do standards play and how do we manage risk in modern methods of construction?”

Mr Roche noted that as building methods have changed over the years, building regulations have had to keep pace with that. “When we talk about building codes and regulations, it’s those things that tell us how we should build buildings and how they should perform. Over time, we’ve seen a transition from more prescriptive language to more performance-based language, and that has been one of the enablers for innovation. In terms of codes and regulations, they set the minimums, for, say, certain types of buildings and certain outcomes they have to achieve.”

In the future, a large part of the standards will revolve around fire suppression in the form of sprinklers, Mr Roche added. “It shouldn’t be a surprise that people are asking for sprinklers to be included in those buildings.”

Mr Roche said that emphasising standardisation regulations is going to be crucial in the future. “It’s not just going to be fire, it’s going to be some of the basic things about how you put these buildings together. Just simply thinking about how you put together a building is very important. Most of us have been working from home and we’ve connected all sorts of computer items through USB ports and other things. We never stop to think that actually that’s made possible through standardisation, and perhaps that needs to be thought about for some modern construction.”

But to get to that level of standardisation requires research. “We’re still talking about gaps in research,” he said. “Have we got the solid foundations for what is needed to be able to use these techniques successfully? I strongly believe standardisation is the way to go. The way to get there is [through] research… so people aren’t scrambling around trying to sort of understand how some of these buildings work in large scale.”

Dan Daly, Head of the NFCC Protection Policy and Reform Unit

In the first talk after the lunch break, Dan Daly, head of the NFCC Protection Policy and Reform Unit, expanded on Mr Wilsher’s earlier comments on the Protection Policy and Reform Unit and the Risk Review Programme.

“The programme is aimed at meeting the ambitions set out by government to significantly increase the pace of inspection activity across high-rise residential buildings and to ensure all have been inspected or reviewed by the end of 2021,” he said. “We’re supporting the coordination of responses to government consultations on the new Building Safety Bill.

“We’re closely involved in assisting and advising the new regulator, which is the Health and Safety Executive, in future ways of working between the agency, the fire service and building control. The team are also responding to a large volume of inquiries from members of the public and residents of high-risk buildings and other professionals such as fire and rescue staff, building control officers, risk assessors, and provided technical advice and guidance on matters of concern.”

Mr Daly then moved on to the new version of the FCC competency framework that was released earlier this year, and how regulators are starting work on developing professional standards for the protection of functions within fire and rescue services.

“This piece of work is being led by the Professional Standards Board and we’re just setting up a working group that will be overseeing the development of a suite of professional standards relating to the protection function. They’ll be drafting an overarching protection function standard and then a number of supplementary standards underneath that that relate to the specific activities of the business, safety or protection departments.

“We’ll have standards on subjects such as business, safety, enforcement, fire engineering, risk-based inspection programs and thorough investigation.

“We’re also working closely with the central program office within the FCC to develop national guidance and national learning for protection departments. Over the past 15 years or so, since the introduction of the Fire Safety Order, each fire and rescue service has developed a range of technical guidance documents for its staff that we’re seeking now to pull all of this together and use the documents created to establish best practice and publish a suite of national guidance and case studies of learning events from past experience that will benefit all services in the future and help us to move forward in a consistent way.”

In addition, the guidance will be analysed to see if there are any gaps and if additional guidance needs to be prepared, Mr Daly said. “We hope that that piece of work will lead to a comprehensive suite of up-to-date national guidelines for protection functions.”

Shane Ray, President of the NFSA

Following this, Shane Ray, President of the NFSA, returned to the earlier theme of the effectiveness of sprinklers, noting that statistics in the US show that fire sprinkler systems are 96 per cent effective and in the past two years, only 13 people have lost their lives in fires where sprinkler systems were present.

But in buildings where there is no sprinkler system – such as in structures that are still being built – there remain challenges for firefighters in getting water to certain places, Mr Ray added.

Mr Ray gave an example of a building that was 90 per cent complete that experienced a fire. The windows in that facility from the second floor all the way to the top floor were compromised. But as there were working fire sprinklers the interior of the building did not suffer fire damage, as the sprinklers held the fire outside of the structure.

What was crucial here was the fire protection systems were turned on as the floors are added, Mr Ray said. “While that may sound like a simple approach, it is a very complex process: we need to understand the relationship between the fire protection contractor, the water provider, the alarm contractor, the authority having jurisdiction and all the officials involved in making this scenario a more positive outcome.

“In some cases, the laws and regulations that govern different components of that construction sometimes hamper our ability to maintain a safe environment. And that is where we encourage active involvement to remove those obstacles and hurdles, to bring all the stakeholders to the table in the process, to understand everyone’s side, because no one wants to have the tragedy that occurred here, which in this case just happened to be the loss of the facility.”

Mr Ray added that as well as the construction of buildings changing in recent years, the commodities and configuration of the products that go through them have too, especially in warehouses. He cited examples of a warehouse fire that cost the lives of six firefighters and another that while it didn’t cost any firefighters’ lives, resulted in a $750 million loss, which included a lot of jobs and resources in the community.

“The key here is the fact that as the commodities change so must the fire protection systems and how we deal with the commodities being put into these buildings. These fires continue to happen. One thing that we would encourage is, do not shut the system down; the fire sprinkler and fire suppression systems in the buildings attempt to control and contain this fire.”

Mr Ray added that the Fire Service tries to get into a building and get a fire completely extinguished. “As you well know, however, in many cases we fail to recognise the change of the commodities, the change in the configuration of how those commodities are dealt with in the building. And as a result, if the fire sprinkler system becomes overwhelmed and [if] anyone turns its water supply off, it results in something that typically cannot be stopped.”

He added that research must continue around the world into modern components, content and configuration of these fires.

Dr Lori Moore-Merrell, President and CEO of the International Public Safety Data Institute

Research – and the data produced by it – can also help to manage risk in modern methods of construction, according to Dr Lori Moore-Merrell, President and CEO of the International Public Safety Data Institute.

“Look at your specific structure types, whether it is your masonry, heavy timber, wood frame? How many rooms? [Are there] any improvements that have been done? There are data sources available that can include this kind of information,” she says. “This all plays into your risk assessment. And so, when we talk about data and modern construction, what we’re really talking about is information about the risk environment in which your firefighters will be responding.”

Other data elements that can be included in research is historic fires within a community. “Looking at your fire data as another data source, geocoding that and then overlaying that with your community, you can form these heat maps looking at where you’ve had a stored fire, because there’s a good bit of information there that is predictive of future events and plays into our environment and the community risk,” said Dr Moore-Merrell.

The expected size of those fires can also be looked at. “Again, based on what we’ve seen in the built environment, what type of structures did they have? The risk of fire, the expected fire, the size of fire spread, and then the likelihood of injury and death again from the historic fires. We can predict somewhat what we’re looking at going forward. The community risk can be added to our built environment and historic fire data.

“When we start to look at community risk, these are really based on sociodemographic profiles, the structures which we’ve already mentioned, including the modern construction. These three elements – the profile of the community, environment and historic fires – are all layers that we need to be able to look at.”

This data can help with planning and response when a fire is reported – so those first needed on the scene in the geographic area can be anticipated. Understanding of all the elements of community risk in response zones can help fire commanders better plan the whole response and ensure it is focused, Dr Moore-Merrell emphasised.

She added it is important to emphasise matching deployment capability to the hazard or risk levels that are inherent in that response in the community. “Matching resources deployed to your firefighters to the risk event to which they are responding is so important to understanding the data on both sides of that equation, because if we do not match well, then we are far more vulnerable to negative outcomes, either injury or death, civilian injury and death and property loss.”

Andrew Sharrad, International President, IFE

Andrew Sharrad, International President of the Institution of Fire Engineers, dialled in from Australia to bring the curtain down on the event. He explained how the experience in Australia is not dissimilar to the UK.

He feels that there needs to be further exploration of debate on whether poor construction or poor maintenance of buildings leads to the sort of catastrophic losses discussed earlier or if there is something more fundamental about the nature of these buildings and the way they are used. “The challenge means that components in construction needs to be better regulated,” he said. “And we’ve heard today examples of how this is being taken forward.”

Mr Sharrad also asked if there is more that needs to be done in managing the safety of these buildings in terms of maintenance and operations. “We have heard about operational responses to such incidents and lessons learned, such as the need for decisive action to ensure the safety of occupants. The responding firefighters have been called and have been surprised at the speed and the extent to which the fire spread. Rescue services around the world face down situations where rapid and effective decision making and interventions are required.

“This is a significant challenge that requires continuous focus on improvements to research, operational policy formation and training, working internationally and in partnership. As evidenced by the joint approach to organising this conference, we can ensure an ongoing focus on the issues and continued dialogue through these challenging developments.

“Recommendations here in Australia have highlighted the need for significant reform in building regulation and fire safety engineering practices. In a similar vein, the UK saw the Setting the Bar report published recently. And there is, of course, the Fire Safety Bill, which proposes fundamental changes to improve building fire safety for 2021 and the years ahead. A vast amount of resources and time will be spent implementing the outcomes of these reports.

“It is vital that the recommendations and actions by governments, regulators, professional bodies, fire authorities, educators, insurers and others yield real reform.”

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