Ensuring fire safety in an ever-changing regulatory landscape

Fire regulations are higher on the agenda than ever before, particularly following the Grenfell Tower tragedy in 2017, which rightly put regulatory change under intense scrutiny. Despite this, many UK businesses are still just as in the dark about their legal obligations when it comes to fire safety as they were several years ago. But with ongoing developments in building safety regulations following the Hackitt Review – with the government announcing that all 53 of Dame Hackitt’s recommendations will be addressed by a new building safety regulator – there is still momentum to make tangible changes to health and safety regulations.


Johnson Controls’ smart HQ in Cork, Ireland.
Copyright Johnson Controls


A major stumbling block faced by the industry is that if regulations are introduced bit by bit, then they will also be implemented bit by bit, which can be more of a hindrance than a help. This means that despite the same shared goals, every business will have its own level of commitment to fire safety. But best practice and regulation alone are not enough to ensure occupant safety across the board – there are many pieces to the puzzle. The safest bet is a complete, end-to-end overhaul of the way businesses understand and apply fire safety regulations. While the ongoing public inquiry is driving momentum behind this, there is always more work to be done.

Turning Regulatory Tide

Take the Fire Safety Order of 2005. The Order, which states that fire detection and suppression systems and fire risk assessments must be ‘suitable and sufficient’, should be the starting point from which businesses determine their fire safety strategy. Sadly, in reality, outdated fire risk assessments and ill-prepared systems are all too common. UK businesses need to reconsider their policies and ensure that they are not only up to regulatory standard, but fully equipped to protect their employees, residents and visitors from harm.

On a similar note, take 2017’s updated British Standard 5839-1 regulation as a second example. With the extended rules now in place, companies need to understand how they will be affected and what the requirements will be. The standard, which deals with the design, installation and maintenance of fire detection and alarm systems, now calls for greater attention to the reduction of false alarms, increased numbers of sensor types in different zones and improved maintenance.

Due diligence requirements are being tightened up, and companies will find loopholes much more closely policed. Not only that, but investment in hardware, including covers for call points, is going to be necessary. Change will have to come at both the operational and the budget stages – and preparation is key. The government’s plans for a new buildings safety regulator should have a major impact on practices and on the wider landscape, shedding light on what needs to change within both residential and commercial buildings, and probably beyond the UK. Now it is up to individual companies to change the way they approach fire safety, and ensure that they can keep occupants as safe as possible.


“UK businesses need to reconsider their policies and ensure that they are not only up to regulatory standard, but fully equipped to protect their employees, residents and visitors from harm”


Sprinkler Systems: An Example

For a case in point of how regulatory changes should be implemented, let us consider sprinkler systems. In their current form, there is a requirement that buildings above a certain size and application must have sprinkler systems built in from the earliest stages of planning.

As the Grenfell Inquiry progresses and brings its recommendations to parliament, we can expect a far larger proportion of public buildings required to have sprinkler systems retrofitted, and new builds needing to incorporate them from the very beginning.

But it is not just a matter of installing sprinkler systems: servicing, maintenance, system design, and operation must all be properly attended to. Safety teams must ensure that all sprinkler systems are kept in full working order, checking components on a regular basis and running simulations where possible.

Regular hazard reviews and testing carried out by certificated companies is also essential, and your systems must be checked by qualified engineers. There should be an attitude of honesty when it comes to upgrades and change – if a system fails to comply with regulations, or has degraded over time, then cost worries must always come second to compliance.

Ensuring an Expert Fire Risk Assessment

But how to choose a competent assessor in a crowded marketplace? Not only do you need to ensure that your hardware is being tested on a regular basis by independent observers, you also need to conduct regular fire risk assessments of the entire building. You need to take into account everything from exits, gangways and ventilation to detection, alarms and evacuation procedures. From the furthest reach of the building to the place of ultimate safety, you need to have considered every potential hindrance and risk to give you the best chance of protecting your building occupants.

That does not, however, have to mean that there is a black and white choice between a satisfactory balance sheet and the safety of employees and the local community. By working with an expert fire risk assessor, businesses can achieve regulatory compliance and desirable safety levels on a workable budget through a combination of intelligent consultancy and expertise.

In the rush to avoid repeating past mistakes, there is certainly a risk that some fire safety teams may settle for less well-resourced assessors, or those without the expertise required to effectively and safely discern the conditions of the building, just to make sure that something is done. To avoid this, companies should be looking for professional organisations with a proven track record of successful assessments – who should be product agnostic – to conduct the review.

A full-service offering is a positive sign that points to a good provider – a consultative organisation that can assess needs and suggest solutions accordingly, specific to particular environments and systems, is key to reducing risk and achieving compliance. Even better, companies that can provide assessment, servicing, and long-term maintenance across an entire building, site or facility are most likely to be able to help you comply with new regulations and protect your staff and assets.

Many Advantages of a Good Fire Risk Assessment

A good fire risk assessment can be the difference between life and death. We all like to think that it could not happen to us; that our office or home must be safe, could not possibly fall foul of a stray spark or a dropped match; but the statistics say otherwise. In the year ending September 2017, fire and rescue services attended over 170,000 fires in the UK, and there were 346 fatalities as a result.

We have all experienced the directionless panic that can set in when people undergo an unplanned fire drill. That is particularly heightened in cases where false alarms are common – frequent evacuations as a result of poor maintenance or system management breed complacency.

Why is this relevant to fire risk assessments? The better your assessment, the more well-equipped you will be to plan your evacuation procedure, as well as to locate and maintain your detection and suppression systems. A regularly-updated fire risk assessment is the key to understanding the potential pitfalls of your building, whether that is narrow staircases, a small number of exterior exit points or simply a need for more alarm call points.

Some of those factors will be out of your control, but you can take advice from your assessors and install new hardware or remove obstacles from gangways. Above all, you will be better able to draft a well-informed evacuation plan to ensure that all occupants know what is required of them in the event of a fire.

Aside from all-important personal safety, there are also business considerations involved in fire risk assessments, the most prominent among them being regulatory compliance and future commercial planning. We began by considering some of the major regulatory requirements that have been introduced under BS 5839-1:2017. The best way to help yourself prepare for compliance and ensure that you do a good job of implementing the changes is to have a comprehensive fire risk assessment on hand to help you understand how the rules will apply to your particular situation.

The ability to plan effectively will also help you to look after the bottom line without sacrificing due diligence. There are worries that sweeping changes in fire regulations will cost the earth, and when faced with a whole new raft of purchases and process updates, it can feel daunting and expensive. However, by beginning now and making sure you have a comprehensive understanding of your facility’s strengths and weaknesses with regard to fire safety, you will be able to get a basic understanding of what is going to need changing, allowing you to plan any necessary expenses and review multiple tenders to get the best price.

As we have mentioned, the fire regulation landscape is under intense scrutiny. It is imperative that businesses of all sizes, numbers of employees, or square foot of building shape up – change is on the horizon. Sweeping fire safety details under the carpet is unethical, and more than ever before fire safety is firmly in the spotlight.

Absolutely key to being prepared is carrying out a full-scope fire risk assessment, as is working with the right partner; one with access to a wide range of services and with a proven track record. More than anything, fire safety should be treated with the utmost respect and attention: there is a lot to gain, and too much to lose.

About the Author:

With a relevant Fire Service and offshore survival background, Peter has worked in the fire safety industry in service operations, sales, design engineering, channel and product management for over 30 years. Peter is responsible for Johnson Controls UK&I’s electronic detection systems from development through marketing and training to life cycle management. Peter regularly addresses various professional bodies on fire safety engineering, and has been a member of the Fire Industry Association Marketing Group for almost 21 years, promoting the interests and benefits of membership, including acting as a respected lobby group for UK fire safety legislation.

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More