Putting Fire Safety at the Top of your Agenda

I’ve worked in property related risk management for many years dealing with everything from asbestos, legionella to general health and safety related risks, but nothing has the devastating potential of a fire. Many of our fire risk assessors here at 4site have previously served in the fire and rescue service and their personal accounts of how fire can ferociously spread through a building causing destruction and harm to occupants is sobering to say the least. It is often an unfortunate fact that modern fire legislation, standards and guidance evolve as a result of learning from tragic circumstances that have gone before.

So, for once let’s be smart before the event and ensure fire safety is at the top of our agenda.

Myth Buster Challenge Panel

Back in 2012 I joined a panel set up by the Government and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) called the Myth Buster Challenge Panel. The purpose of the panel was to tackle the ‘health and safety’ gone mad stories that were frequently appearing in the news at the time and reintroduce some common sense thinking to health and safety whilst debunking some of the myths as a way of restoring public confidence in what is a robust regulatory framework. It is a fact that we are fortunate to be living at a time when the risks of suffering preventable injuries and fatalities are relatively low. This has been achieve through the development of well designed risk based legislation that allows those who create risk to make sensible decisions on how best to reduce risk to an acceptable level. The corner stone of this approach is risk assessment and it is here that the subsequent prevention and control strategies are built. It is an approach adopted in all areas of health and safety including fire.

The fire risk assessment is considered the bedrock from which the whole fire strategy for a property is built. It is a way of preventing a generic one size fits all approach to fire safety that can lead to over the top control measures that in turn can lead to costly maintenance with little or no added benefit or at worse, inadequate fire safety with potential devastating effects. There is often the feeling that health, safety or fire legislation is over the top but nothing could be further from the truth. The law sets a minimum standard and is based on the principles of risk management in that those who create risks are best placed to control them, and they should do so in a proportionate and practicable way. The approach is primarily goal-setting, not prescriptive, hence the requirement to conduct risk assessments.

Things don’t stand still though and in response to the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower last year and subsequent building safety concerns, Dame Judith Hackitt stepped in to lead an independent review of building regulations and fire safety with a particular focus on multi-occupancy high-rise residential buildings. Dame Judith was previously the Chief Executive of the HSE and Chaired the Myth Buster Challenge Panel, that I mentioned earlier and was privileged to sit on, and as such brings a unique perspective to this challenging role. The interim report from this review was recently published and whilst the focus is on high-rise complex buildings there are important messages for anyone managing residential property.

In the interim report Dame Judith has made it clear that there is a need for a new intelligent system of regulation and enforcement, a system which will encourage everyone to do the right thing and hold to account those who try to cut corners. Greater owner and landlord responsibility is a key theme. One of the key changes suggested is a move away from an approach of doing the minimum required for compliance to one of taking greater ownership and responsibility for delivering a safe system throughout the life cycle of a building. A better system of communication is also proposed, which commands the trust of residents and includes robust ways for their views to be listened to and acted upon. In addition there is a call for clarity on the competence requirements for risk assessors and crucially also those that manage the recommendations arising from risk assessments, after all what is point of having a risk assessment if the recommendations aren’t managed competently.

It is by no means certain what the final outcome of the review will be but it is anticipated that focus of any future changes to regulation will likely be with building regulations and that the requirements for fire risk assessment will remain largely unchanged.

Legislation

Currently there are two main pieces of legislation that apply, the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 covering the common parts and the Housing Act 2004 covering the demised areas. All blocks of flats, including houses converted into two or more flats, will need a fire risk assessment of the communal areas with the responsibility to arrange the assessment with the landlord, Residents’ Management Company or Right to Manage Company as the ‘Responsible Person’. The fire risk assessment will typically review all communal areas including taking into account the main doors to the flats where possible. If there’s reason to doubt the structural fire protection of a block, a more intrusive assessment may be required. This may include opening up the structure of the building to check its fire resistance.

The legislation states that the risk assessments must be reviewed by the ‘responsible person’ regularly to ensure they are up to date. Good practice and best advice would be that the risk assessment is reviewed if anything has changed in the building, there is a change to the legislation or standards, there has been an incident such as a fire or at least annually or at the frequency specified in the previous risk assessment.

A risk assessment must be carried out by a competent person, that is someone with sufficient knowledge, experience and training in fire safety.

There are currently many different qualifications, professional bodies and registration schemes out there that can be confusing. Hopefully we will see some clarity on this when the next stage of Dame Judith’s review is concluded. My advice in the meantime is to ensure that any assessors you engage to complete a fire risk assessment have a credible qualification in fire safety, are a member of a relevant professional body such as the Institute of Fire Engineers (IFE) and has sufficient experience in conducting fire risk assessments the residential property sector preferably supported by a company which has a robust quality management system in place.

Penalties can be significant

The penalties for not managing fire safety can be significant and it’s worth reflecting on a few cases that highlight the dangers of not managing fire risks in your property.

A Landlord from York was hit with a fine of over £7000 and ordered to pay additional costs raising the total amount to over £10,000 after admitting to breaching fire safety regulations. North Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service attended a fire at a block of flats that had been caused by an electrical fault near to the fuse board. Whilst investigating the officers also found that the fire alarm and smoke detection systems provided for the flats and communal hallway was not working. Further investigation found that the Landlord had failed to carryout a fire risk assessment on the property, the first step in any fire safety strategy.

Ignoring Fire Safety Regulations

In another case a Landlord was sentenced to 8 months in prison for ignoring fire safety regulations. Fire fighters rescued 3 residents after a property caught fire in Leicester. On investigation the officers found that there were inadequate fire safety measures in place, no risk assessment had been conducted and there was no clear evacuation strategy. The fire alarm, smoke detectors and emergency lighting were not working at the time of the fire. Fire doors were missing, left opened or jammed open and there was an old fire extinguisher in the communal areas that hadn’t been inspected for over 25 years. This case demonstrates a shocking lack of regard for those living at the property and the harsh sentence given was clearly a very strong message to the owners and managers of similar properties regarding their legal responsibilities and the likely consequences of ignoring them.

Management Company Sentenced

In London, following a fire in a block of flats a man was rescued but tragically later died from his injuries sustained during the fire. The owner of the management company was sentenced to 4 months imprisonment and the company fined £21,000.

The prosecution identified no less than 8 breaches of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, listed below:

  • Article 9: failure to make a suitable and sufficient risk assessment.
  • Article 11: failure to make and give effect to appropriate fire safety arrangements.
  • Article 13: failure to provide appropriate fire fighting equipment.
  • Article 13: failure to provide fire detection measures, namely adequate smoke alarms in the common parts of the premises.
  • Article 14: failure to ensure that routes to emergency exits, and the exits, were clear.
  • Article 14: failure to ensure that persons were able to evacuate the premises as quickly and safety as possible. The escape route was not properly protected because the intumescent strip and cold smoke seal were missing from the top edge of the second floor room and there were combustible materials stored in the exit route, including a washing machine, television, clothing and furniture.
  • Article 14: failure to ensure that there was adequate signage at the property to indicate the emergency exit and route.
  • Article 15: failure to establish and give effect to appropriate procedures to be followed in the event of serious and imminent fire.

At the time the Chairman of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority commented that:

'This fire resulted in a man dying and highlights why landlords and businesses must take their responsibilities under the Order seriously. The London Fire Brigade works hard to bring irresponsible companies and individuals to court, which can, as this case shows, result in a custodial sentence.'

The case identified a shocking list of breaches that led to an avoidable death and clearly would have been avoided had the first requirement, to make a suitable and sufficient fire risk assessment, been complied with and acted on.

In conclusion the key message here is make sure your property has an up-to-date, suitable and sufficient fire risk assessment, carried out by a competent person.

Additionally, those managing the recommendations that arise from the fire risk assessment need to be competent in ensuring that control measures are implemented and systems maintained or inspected at the appropriate intervals. As I said at the beginning of the article, let’s be smart before the event and ensure that fire safety is at the top of the agenda.

 

Dr Shaun Lundy is the Technical Director at 4site Consulting leading the service delivery, quality and new technical developments. Shaun is both a Chartered Safety & Health Practitioner and a Chartered Building Engineer.


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