Glass and fire expert Mike Wood examines some of the fire safety issues arising around new building methods and trends:

It is always helpful to receive a smile and nod of encouragement from government. For the fire safety sector at least direction is clear. In his address to the Westminster seminar Fire safety enforcement, fit-for-purpose 27 November 2012, Fire Minister Brandon Lewis welcomed progress made by the Fire Sector Federation (FSF) and commended the efforts of the Federation as a good example of the type of sector collaboration that government wants to see. Mr Lewis endorsed the FSF and commended it in seeking to pull the sector together and provide new leadership. He said, in addition to the importance of life safety, that complacency is unacceptable in protecting businesses and communities from the economic impacts of fire.

Fire Safety for All

The Fire Sector Federation (FSF) has set out to pull fire safety together and to act on behalf of the sector. However, there is an important wider dimension, which so far has been beneath the sector’s radar. Fire safety critically depends on those outside the fire safety sector involved with buildings and design who in practice are responsible for much of what affects and underpins fire safety.

The fire safety sector too often labours under an illusion that outsiders place fire safety on as high a pedestal as we do. They do not. Fire safety is too often seen as an unwelcome cost, rather than a valued benefit – something that, if at all possible, is to be evaded, or at least watered down. There is at large an implicit assumption that fires will not happen. And, what’s more, that even if they do, responsibility will be taken by somebody else – in the first instance emergency response, and later, when the bills come in, by insurance, or some other responsible person along the management chain. There is a tendency in some quarters to believe that short cuts can be taken with impunity, without consequence or threat of exposure.

‘Responsibility’ is now a key watchword for fire safety. It is timely to have a reminder that all those along the design, construction and operation chain have their own individual responsibilities towards fire safety in buildings.

Sector Strengths

The fire safety sector has some important core strengths to be cherished. The Fire and Rescue Service is highly respected for its professionalism and selfless service in the public interest. The Service has one of the best brand images it is possible to have. In the modern world, with all the knowledge and technological capability now available, it is unacceptable for firefighters to be killed or seriously injured in the course of discharging their duty.

Second, we have the fire safety industry, including insurance – an asset of that is not always as recognised as it should be. The fire safety industry has a tremendous store of expertise and knowledge, with a dedication to advance and advocate fire safety best practice and principles whenever possible. Part of that strength is the time devoted to the development of standards, guidance and codes of practice, in particular through what is a very motivated and engaged structure of representative industry associations and federations acting as mouthpieces for industry. That is as champions and watchdogs, on guard against shoddy practice, dismissive attitudes and misunderstanding. Thirdly regulations are well set up, robust, fit-for-purpose and effective. There is no call for major change to regulation - perhaps adjustment as necessary to fit with modern changes in buildings. 

Risk and Responsibility

The introduction of a risk-based methodology is constructive in several respects, including risk management plans, operational response and fire safety risk assessments. Following the Fire Safety Order, 2005, in particular, responsibility has been pushed much more centre stage, given a new-needed emphasis. A focus on risks also provides a better-structured approach.

Part of the success springing from a risk focus is the spotlight thrown on to the importance of knowledge and self-awareness. It is, for example, central to risk assessment in its various forms to be aware of the limits of one’s information, experience and capability. Information flow is particularly important, as is a need to strive for objectivity instead of subjectivity, ideally with peer review through sector exposure. These developments in turn lead to recognition of the need to demonstrate competency, along with associated training and accreditation programmes.

Design Practice

Risk-based design also needs to be brought within the same framework and made subject to the same elements of scrutiny. Such modern design practices are treated with suspicion in some quarters - largely due to the lack of exposure and dialogue, and a tendency for fire safety engineering to hide behind technical and specialist barriers. Fire safety engineering as a scientific discipline certainly has a valid place in a complex built environment. But practice should not masquerade as - or be confused with - value engineering. (In other words, primarily acting in the service of cost reduction rather than good practice fire safety, and pushing limits into the shadows of the unknown). If that offends the sensitivities of practitioners then the onus is on them to explain and make the risk-based design practices much more transparent than they are currently.

In particular, fire safety engineering needs to make sure that it is really based in practice on sound product knowledge and technical principles that can be justified in an impartial way, subject to sector exposure and review. It also needs to make sure that the models in use are demonstrably validated and have resonance with actual performance under-fire conditions.

As in most engineering disciplines, a close familiarity with materials is essential. Fire science needs to advance hand-in-hand with fire safety engineering. However, it is easy to reach the conclusion that their marriage has not yet been fully consummated.

Modern Methods

A functional approach to design and construction brings a long list of competing demands. Experience with glass in buildings provides a good illustration. Aesthetics, openness, light, energy and solar control, acoustics, access, designs to catch the eye, decoration, stability, impact safety, security, and even now blast protection... This may all come first before fire safety gets a look in.

Technologies and methods of construction have all developed quite rapidly, especially under pressures from lower cost construction, faster assembly, improved energy consumption, sustainability and more economic space utilisation. Fire safety competes against those other drivers. Experiments with prefabrication and the use of cheaper industrial processes in construction are long established, starting in the 1920’s with Frank Lloyd Wright and other pioneers. They significantly frame much of modern architecture. But, perhaps, the full implications have been slow to emerge and haven’t been given sufficient structured consideration from the point of view of fire safety.

A variety of modern methods of construction have been introduced, along with new forms of old materials and new engineered structures, sometimes hidden behind a disarmingly traditional-looking facade. In truth the traditional has been left behind some time ago.

The concern is that fire safety risk evaluation of new materials, methods and structures has not yet moved on apace. The implications for fire safety are not top of the agenda for these developments. Changes such as modular assembly, lighter and less robust constructions, use of more organic materials raise fundamental questions - of basic robustness of resilience against fire, risks of easier fire spread, lower ignition points, increased fire load and lower stability. There is a case for written and published risk assessments to be provided for fundamental aspects of design. That applies in particular where there are developments - eg in structure, material use and construction - differ significantly from what would be seen as recognised norms.

Looking to the Future

The past record in fire safety, comforting and reassuring as it may be, is perhaps not such a secure guide to the future. It is too easy to look at the improvements in numbers of fires and fatalities (ignoring rising costs and the influence of social factors) to believe that nothing really needs to change. A belief that we fully understand the past may lead to overconfidence, and a feeling that we do not have to adapt for the future.

Clearly the built environment is becoming more complex and more challenging. We cannot ignore or fail to properly evaluate changes in terms of fire safety risks – new methods may build fundamental weaknesses into the building stock, which may only become apparent some years down the line when an unforeseen shock catastrophe occurs. The only options will then be hurried sticking plaster solutions, after the event.