Setting the fire safety bar too low?

I know that many of you will have read and seen reported with horror, the nightmare that is unfolding almost daily at the Grenfell Inquiry, Minister [Lord Stephen Greenhalgh, Minister of State for Fire]. I think that we all fully accept and support that we need to redesign and rebuild a broken Building Regulations system.

Indeed, the government should be congratulated for what it is proposing as a first step. I am certainly not alone in being slightly wary of the two-tier approach proposed. But there is at least an acknowledgement that it needs to be fixed and that is a start and should be welcomed.

However, as many people explained to Dame Judith at the very start of these investigations, it is not just the system that is broken; the guidance and regulations themselves are ambiguous, outdated and subject to abuse. Yes, I know that there is a Building Regulations review underway. I actually sit on the ADB Working Group of BRAC.

And whilst I fully accept that we need to go through due process and undertake the research and assess the evidence prior to change, my question for today is: are we setting the bar too low from the start?

Let me explain. When I speak to people outside the fire sector most are surprised to discover that the only requirement of UK Building Regulations is to ensure that in the case of a fire, evacuation occurs before buildings collapse. What do I mean by that?

So long as everyone is rescued before a fire destroys the building, Building Regulations are deemed to have achieved the primary goal of ensuring that no one dies. Quite correct – but if you think about it this can be considered as an incredibly low bar because as we all know fire can have devastating consequences for businesses, communities and individuals.

And on that basis, Minister, all these fires are deemed to be Building Regulations successes. But ask anyone living through the aftermath of a major incident and they will tell you that getting out of the building is only the first hurdle. Rehoming families, finding a new location for a care home or school, recovering lost schoolwork or trying to resurrect a business can take years and as we know – some people and organisations never recover.

Whilst the protection of life in the event of a fire is, of course, the priority, it will be no surprise to many that at the FPA we believe property and business protection require far greater attention than it currently receives.

Those responsible for business or service management need to consider the immense cost and upheaval caused by disruption, and take action to mitigate the risk. Achieving this kind of organisational resilience is, of course, just part of responsible management – if the pandemic has taught us anything it is that no single event should be able to cause an organisation to fail – if it does it should be considered an outcome of poor management. To achieve a truly resilient built environment those responsible for the safety of a building and its occupants need to have this responsibility enshrined in law.

For us, we believe that it is reasonably simple. It all comes down to having a comprehensive fire strategy and a robust business continuity plan. Sadly and unfortunately, far too many organisations fail to undertake any Business Impact Analysis and this too, we believe, should be required in law; it would drive the risk assessment process and development of the fire safety management plan.

With Grenfell the fallout of the Hackitt Review and the revelations uncovered by the public Inquiry have taught us anything, it is the responsibility of building owners and managers to have a better understanding of how their buildings are put together and how they will perform during a major incident like a fire.

Know Your Building

They must ‘know their building’ and this is the theme of a 12-month campaign that FPA is launching today (see pg 66) just as we enter our 75th Anniversary Year.

And as acknowledged in the current proposed legislation this should not restricted to owners, it should also be a right of building occupiers. We believe that it is vital for everyone to know:

  • What materials the building is made of
  • How it is constructed
  • And the level of competency possessed by those who carry out works to improve fire safety.

But we should also go much further. Yes building and business owners need to implement robust fire protection and prevention systems but not just those that focus on evacuation and rescue. Buildings need systems that limit fire damage to a building, enabling the fire and rescue services to be effective and ultimately see the building put back into use.

For those who have already taken the leap, this is most commonly achieved by the development and maintenance of a fire strategy for each premises.

And whereas building owners and occupiers have been prompted or nudged in this direction by Grenfell, many still fail to have a complete and comprehensive understanding of the buildings from a fire safety standpoint.

Of course, the current pandemic has already brought economic hardship to millions. A fire, without the proper protection and prevention systems in place, could be the tipping point for many businesses that are currently struggling to stay afloat.

Minister, we simply cannot afford this to happen. We need to broaden the base of Building Regulations to ensure that we have a built environment that is not just fire safe but one that is truly resilient.

Resilience, or the lack of it, is becoming a major issue in modern buildings. From what I am told none of the recent fires were particularly remarkable when they started; thankfully no-one was killed in any of them and so as I have already said they probably rate as a Building Regulations success, but the resilience failures of these structures is clear to see.

  • They were susceptible – they involved combustible construction
  • At least two of them were down to fire breaking in – which is still not considered in current building regulations
  • They were vulnerable containing combustible voids and with poor compartmentation
  • There was external fire spread – of course none had sprinklers
  • And all this leads to a situation which is non-recoverable because as we heard last year from CFO Mark Cashin, Cheshire, despite the fire and rescue service’s best endeavours they did not have a chance of saving that care home in Crewe.

So what are the consequence?

  • Is the retirement home still trading?
  • What disruption has been faced by the vulnerable occupants?
  • What was the business impact to Premier Inn?
  • What disruption is faced by the owners and occupiers – what life-belongings did they lose?

Minister, now is the time to act to recognise the wider cost of fire.

Cost of Fire

ABI figures confirm that the cost of fire to the insurance industry including business interruption has remained around £1.5 billion a year for the past three to four years.

At the FPA we have analysed more than 4,500 large loss claims to see what can be learned about major fires, their financial impact – including disruption to business or essential services – and how they could have been avoided. Each of the claims in the database are represent losses of £100,000 or more.

From January 2009 until December 2019, the average large fire loss was over £600,000 – this is a phenomenal amount of money for something that can be mitigated against. These figures are only half of the picture.

The cost of a fire is equally about the disruption, loss of momentum, loss of customer base, impact on brand and customer retention and rebuilding a business.

Nowhere is this knock-on effect more evident than when we look at essential services. For example, when a fire occurs in a care home or hospital, the toll on staff, patients and their families can be enormous. Even if residents or patients are saved from the initial fire, they can suffer distress associated with the upheaval, break in their care, and loss of familiar surroundings and this can be life ending.

School Fire Losses

Similarly, if a school is destroyed, the legacy can be significant. According to Zurich Municipal, schools in England are nearly twice as likely to suffer a blaze as other types of commercial building and large fires in schools cost on average £2.8 million to repair and in some cases more than £20 million. I do not need to tell you that finding a temporary location for a large school with hundreds of students and teachers is never straightforward and can result in an elongated interruption to learning. Even if an alternative site is found, it is rarely in the same area and so there can be significant logistical challenges in transporting pupils to a site further away. Stress levels for parents, teachers and management, as well as pupils who may have lost key coursework or be facing exams, is an important factor to consider, even though it is hard to quantify or measure.

So apart from embedding property protection into the current legislation and demanding that those responsible undertake a business impact analysis, what can be simply embraced in the current legislation to ensure change?

As we know and will hear more of later – trends within the building industry towards the use of more combustible materials such as timber and plastics have contributed to making fires more complex, more severe, and harder to tackle. As a result, many fires in apartment blocks, schools and care homes are notable for the extent of fire spread and total loss of the building. Decisions regarding building design are often made based upon aesthetics or sustainability rather than long-term resilience. We strongly believe it is the job of building designers, architects and fire consultants to work together to use materials that are appropriate to supporting the risk, protection and long-term care needs of the occupants. Put simply: high-risk buildings such as schools, hospitals and care home should not be constructed from combustible materials – it is not rocket science – but it does now need to be enshrined in law.

Those responsible for the management of business or services, or individual buildings within them, should be aware of the solutions available which mitigate the risk of major loss. Having a good knowledge of a building, and therefore where a particular solution is appropriate or urgently required, is essential.

Fire Safety Strategy

I have talked about the need for a business impact analysis and touched on a fire strategy – we believe that it should be a regulatory requirement for every company to have a comprehensive fire strategy in place. A building fire safety strategy will help owners and managers ‘know’ their building and its processes. It will establish how the building is constructed and describe the key components, both physical and managerial, of the fire safety arrangements. A fire strategy provides building owners, occupiers and managers with relevant information so they know what changes need to be made to the nature, layout, use and occupancy of the premises to mitigate risk.

When putting together a fire strategy, organisations should set clear objectives for business continuity and, where appropriate, buildings should be compartmented to contain fire, secure means of escape and prevent loss of life and property damage. Organisations, both private and public, should use the fire strategy to undertake a business impact analysis and develop a business continuity plan.

The fire strategy also forms the basis of the fire risk assessment, which both current and proposed legislation requires to be undertaken by a competent person. Minister, however reassuring the word competent feels – it is simply not prescriptive enough for life safety critical services that support fire. Whilst I am fully supportive of the work led by the Construction Industry Council on their competence framework, the building blocks are there but ambiguity still exists. A simple way of ensuring competence is by independent third party certification; the government has recognised this for many years in the regulation of gas, you now need to embrace it in fire. But do not restrict it to risk assessment, extend it to those supplying life safety fire protection equipment and services. There is currently no consistent definition of what competency looks like for fire risk assessors, building managers, installers, or maintainers of active or passive fire protection systems. Third party certification is the only way to guarantee the competence of installers and fire safety practitioners, and to ensure traceability and suitability of fire safety products, including fire doors, sprinkler and alarm systems.

I am sure that the industry will support you – but if you do not yet feel confident enough yet in the market’s capacity to react – at least consider offering a statutory defence in law for those who choose to use third party accredited firms.

Third party certification should also ensure the more widespread adoption of risk appropriate fire protection systems. What do I mean by risk appropriate? At the FPA, we are working hard to lobby the government to change the law so that sprinklers for example become mandatory in all high-risk buildings such as schools, hospitals, care homes, multi-storey buildings, and to be included in more of the warehousing stock

So as I close and prepare to listen to what the Minister has to say – my message is please embrace building resilience in the proposed legislation. As I have said we would like to see risk assessments include a Business Impact Analysis providing a clear understanding of the capability lost by fire. A good knowledge of a building, including how it has been constructed, the systems and process in place to protect against and prevent fire, and the individuals responsible for installing or maintaining systems and essential in protecting it from fire damage. By identifying fire safety ‘blind spots’, organisations can ensure they are as resilient as possible to fires and mitigate against the significant losses that can occur where proper systems are not in place.

Minister, I invite you to support our Know you Building Campaign and ensure that our built environment is both safe and resilient as we move on from the tragedy that has tainted the fire safety record of the UK.

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