New legislation will create a “perfect storm” for fire risk assessment

Dennis Davis, Executive Director, Fire Sector Federation, reports on an opportunity missed to provide a more robust approach to competence in the Building Safety Act

Fire risk assessors, together with the building owners and safety managers who employ them, face additional challenges in satisfying new legal requirements to meet fire safety competency standards that have come into force with commencement of the Fire Safety Act 2021, and which will increase further now the Building Safety Act 2022 has achieved Royal Assent.

The Fire Safety Act, now in force, saw a significant change to require that a building’s external walls be considered as part of any assessment. The Building Safety Act goes further, placing a clear duty on Accountable and Responsible Persons to confirm the competency of any fire risk assessor that they appoint to assist them to undertake a building fire risk assessment.

Unfortunately, there remains a lack of detailed definition of what is competent, which puts these ‘duty holders’ under considerable pressure to make the correct choices. The Act has no action to stop the unsatisfactory practice of allowing unqualified persons to assess fire risk.

This is why the Fire Sector Federation has called this ‘an opportunity missed’ – given a more robust approach to competence could have been stated. Simply mandating fire risk assessors to measure up to assured industry standards, or specifying third-party assurance as a practical way to guide building owners and safety managers in their selection of fire risk assessors with appropriate competence, remain omitted as public safeguards.

Just how long should a situation that allows those ‘fire risk assessors’ who are not part of any third-party scheme or professional body, and therefore unable to adequately demonstrate competence to a client, be allowed to continue?

Significant capacity and capability concerns are also being voiced across the housing and building sectors. Meeting likely demands arising from new legislation is already upon us at a time when practising fire risk assessors face problems with personal indemnity insurance. In some cases it is so bad that assessors say they are leaving the market because of premium increases linked to constraints on cover.

Those accountable for building and fire safety, including fire risk assessors operating without clearly demonstrable competency, need to get ready now. They must fully understand the implications of demonstrating compliance with their obligations under the new legislation. Using existing third-party assurance schemes that demonstrate fire risk assessors are competent is a practical way forward for clients. Joining such schemes or engaging with organisations that are developing standards will allow qualified professionals to show they are competent, and is a way forward for contractors.

We need to face up to these challenges to avoid a perfect storm in the fire risk assessor sector that could undermine fire safety in our buildings.

The Federation has committed to developing a range of resources to support the continued development of competency in this area, helping the sector meet its obligations. We will soon publish a new industry standard for the general fire risk assessor that establishes three competency levels for assessors that are matched to three generic types of building risk. We will be encouraging wide adoption to mitigate the negative impacts that continue within an unsatisfactory unregulated situation.

Working with members, the Fire Sector Federation has developed guidance designed for fire risk assessors and building owners that is free to download on its website. This includes A Guide to Choosing a Fire Risk Assessor, Advice for Fire Safety Managers, Approved Code of Practice for Fire Risk Assessors Competency and a Safe Escape Checklist. A free to access national list of fire risk assessors who are qualified to industry standards is also available on the website:

Make do and mend: Building a case for resilience and against demolition

Tom Roche, Secretary of the Business Sprinkler Alliance, argues against demolishing buildings that have been destroyed by fire in favour of strategies involving flexible automatic fire protection

With the built environment accounting for 38 per cent of total energy-related global CO2 emissions, the decarbonisation of construction must be accelerated if we are to achieve our sustainability goals. It is an interesting sign then that the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) is advocating halting demolition in order to lower carbon emissions and urging developers to refurbish and re-use existing buildings.

The fact that RIBA architects are signalling that buildings be re-used and not demolished in order to fight climate change leads one to consider the value of the existing properties. It is very much the same path behind our thoughts on a holistic approach that addresses both sustainability and fire resilience. It brings us back to the question of when an unprotected building is destroyed by fire and needs to be demolished, what are people really thinking about the outcome they want for a building?

Every year 50,000 buildings are demolished in the UK producing 126 million tonnes of waste, which represents two-thirds of the UK’s total waste. Simply replacing these buildings with new ones that are more energy efficient is not the most sustainable approach, especially when you consider that 35 per cent of the lifecycle carbon of a typical office building is emitted before a building is in-use and the figure is 51 per cent for a residential building. In short, it will take decades before a new building pays back its carbon debt by saving more emissions than it created. It is why RIBA wants to encourage developers to refurbish and repurpose existing buildings instead of demolishing them.

Compare this to when a building is heavily damaged or even destroyed by fire; the materials involved are unlikely to be recycled due to contamination and will need to be crushed down and disposed of in another way. Replacement and extensive repair incurs further carbon emission impact. If we need to retain as much as possible of the built environment that we have created, what does that mean for the outcomes we want for some of these buildings? Is it simply compliance with regulations?

If we are entering an era that says the longevity of buildings may increase, losing buildings needlessly to fire will increasingly not make sense. Some may argue that a newly renovated or adapted building is saving carbon emissions as it is not being demolished but at the same time, fire safety challenges come to the fore.

Therefore, when we make that shift away from demolition, we need to look at the broader issues. When an existing building is adapted, reused or repurposed, it is critical to think about what that means in terms of new fire safety objectives. This ‘new’ building will shift some of our value parameters and therefore the resilience of a building should become an objective.

Protecting that reusability will therefore become key to a building’s sustained value. Losing the materials and the building usability in a fire will see it taken out of the building’s lifecycle – the result will be a valuable resource taken to rebuild them.

This is where fire strategies will need to adapt and the role of flexible automatic fire protection can make a difference. By considering and incorporating automatic sprinklers at the earliest stages of the design process, stakeholders can add value to any project and protect their investment from ending up in the skip.

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Another building bites the dust: Essex food factory burns to the ground

Following the total destruction of another building, Iain Cox, Chair of the Business Sprinkler Alliance, says that halting the spread of fire when it is first detected is the best way to limit damage and minimise costs and impacts

An early morning blaze at an industrial site in Harlow destroyed the production facilities of a local food manufacturer. The devastating fire swept through an unsprinklered sausage factory, sending plumes of orange smoke across the town, with the long-established business now counting the cost of the damage and dealing with the disruption to their livelihoods.

Essex Fire and Rescue Service was called to the fire on April 26 when it broke out at the Riverway Food production facility during the night shift. On arrival, the factory was 95 per cent alight and 100 per cent smoke logged, which limited access. The blaze required 70 firefighters, ten appliances and specialist equipment including aerial ladder platforms. It took 36 hours before fire crews could hand the site over to security staff. Fire crews were forced to return to the site four days later due to reports of smoke and a hot spot from an unstable part of the damaged building.

While night shift workers escaped unharmed, considerable resources were used by the fire and rescue service to control the fire. The impact on the local community and environment was significant with local road closures, residents forced to keep their windows and doors closed due to harmful smoke and a number of measures employed to minimise the impact of pollution to the local environment.

The disposal of the destroyed 2,500m2 building will cause an adverse environmental impact, while the materials and resources required to repair and rebuild it will incur significant financial costs.

In business for over 50 years, the local family-run food concern employed over 130 workers, who like the company, face an uncertain future. Riverway Foods will need to recover from the effects of the blaze. In the worst-case scenario, the effect of the fire is the closure of the business.

It is interesting to note that this fire took place in a modestly-sized building, which the company referenced on their website as being a ‘21st century factory’ that was purpose built with the latest technology. The fire service worked hard to protect surrounding properties yet the intervention of 70 firefighters could not stop the fire in a building of this size. Industrial fires impact far larger premises with similar results and with potentially larger impacts.

We must always be thankful when a fire is contained and extinguished with no loss of life, but it is not enough. Lives are still affected regardless, and we must strive to minimise the effect that fire has in all circumstances. When we minimise fire spread we not only protect lives, we protect property, businesses and jobs. A properly controlled fire can be the difference between a building requiring renovation or demolition. Halting the spread of fire when it is first detected is the best way to limit damage and minimise costs and impacts. Sprinklers have been shown to contain, control or extinguish fires in 99 per cent of cases1. The impacted business can be operational within hours, avoiding the economic and social costs.

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1 Efficiency and Effectiveness of Sprinkler Systems in the United Kingdom: An Analysis from Fire Service Data – Optimal Economics May 2017

London Fire Brigade commences new enforcement powers

In response to government announcements on reform in the fire and rescue sector, London Fire Brigade says it will start using new enforcement powers and will continue to support further change to protect the communities it serves

  • The Brigade welcomes the government’s commencement of the Fire Safety Act and warns building owners and managers it will use this new clarification of powers if safety is put at risk
  • Almost five years on from the tragic Grenfell Tower fire, the Brigade says people need certainty about how to leave their building in the event of a fire – this is an urgent issue that the government needs to address to ensure everybody feels safe in their home
  • The Brigade welcomes the publication of the white paper setting out the government’s vision of the future direction of the fire and rescue sector

The Brigade has called for the building and design sectors to step up and take urgent action to remediate their buildings if there are serious fire safety failings. There are still more than 1,000 residential buildings with fire safety failings in London, and the Brigade says there still needs to be a culture change in the industry to ensure that new buildings of all types are built safely from the outset.

Commencement of the Fire Safety Act 2021

London Fire Brigade is warning building owners and managers it will use new legislation to take enforcement action if they are putting residents’ lives at risk by not taking the fire safety of their buildings seriously.

The provisions in the Fire Safety Act 2021 came into force last month, after receiving Royal Assent in April last year. The Act clarifies the extent of the duties and responsibilities of the responsible persons for residential buildings and fire and rescue services’ enforcement powers under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005.

The Act allows enforcement where those duties are not being met, particularly where they were previously unclear on the exterior of buildings and flat front doors. Government has also published a risk-based prioritisation tool to assist building owners in the prioritisation of risks across their buildings.

Following the commencement of the Act, London Fire Brigade Commissioner, Andy Roe, said: “The new legislation gives fire and rescue services much-needed clarity to take enforcement action against building owners and managers who are not meeting their responsibilities on external areas of buildings, such as cladding and balconies.

“We have already warned London’s building owners and managers that this was coming and we will use these new powers if they aren’t meeting their legal responsibilities. So we are again reiterating our calls that they need to take urgent action to fix their buildings if there are serious failings.

“Now the provisions in the Fire Safety Act have come into force, we will be working with NFCC and government to look at how we can best move forward in a way that is consistent across the country and enables us to enforce as quickly as possible against those that continue to drag their feet.

“We still need to see a culture change in the industry when it comes to fire safety in residential buildings. It is extremely concerning that the number of buildings with serious fire safety failings has been at more than 1,000 for almost a year.

“We must never forget what has brought us to this day and that is the 72 people who died at the Grenfell Tower fire and all those affected. They remain in our thoughts.”

Personal Emergency Evacuation Plans (PEEPs) consultation response

Responding to the government’s response to the PEEPs consultation, Commissioner Roe said: “It’s vitally important that people feel safe in their own homes and have certainty about how to leave their building in the event of a fire or other emergency.

“PEEPs were a key recommendation from the Grenfell Tower Inquiry and we want to work with government, communities and other partners to make progress on evacuation plans. We will be responding to this consultation.”

BSI and the FIA launch partnership at exhibition

BSI, the business improvement and standards company, report on the launch of a collaboration with the Fire Industry Association at FIREX International

The partnership will provide members of the FIA with discounts on certification to the BSI Kitemark™ for IoT (Internet of Things) devices, which is designed to help consumers confidently and easily identify the IoT devices they can trust to be safe, secure and functional. As part of this launch and to provide more support to organisations in this sector, BSI will also be implementing a platform for members of the FIA to benefit from discounts on fire safety training modules.

The collaboration follows the successful launch of the BSI Fire Safety and IoT Masters Academy where BSI and the FIA offered insights and a panel discussion on the IoT and its involvement in the fire industry.

Rob Hine, Head of Commercial Partnerships at BSI, said: “We are delighted to be launching our partnership with the FIA at such a renowned industry event to better support their members. Certification and training will benefit organisations looking to develop, test or launch fire safety products into the market, and for those wanting to train their teams on fire safety.

“This collaboration builds on BSI’s existing relationship with the FIA and we look forward to continuing our work with the trade association to bring benefits to its members in the future.”

Renata Kopka, Marketing Manager at the FIA, added: “The FIA is excited to be collaborating with BSI. Our partnership will offer FIA members a worthwhile discount on the BSI IoT Kitemark, which is great step forward in incentivising the IoT in the fire safety industry. We look forward to continuing our work with BSI to bring more benefits to the UK fire safety industry.”

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Families back Think Sprinkler campaign

The National Fire Chiefs Council reports on its Think Sprinkler campaign, backed by the families of two mothers who lost their lives in a tragic care home fire. The initiative is urging the government to improve sprinkler regulations in England

Daphne Holloway, 88, and Ivy Spriggs, 91, sadly lost their lives after an accidental fire ripped through Newgrange Care Home in Hertfordshire on April 8, 2017. Daphne and Ivy’s daughters, Claire Miles and Carole Murray, added their support as part of the National Fire Chiefs Council’s (NFCC) ‘Think Sprinkler’ week of action, which ran from May 16-22.

While 33 residents were rescued by Hertfordshire Fire and Rescue Service, Daphne and Ivy died in their beds as firefighters were unable to reach them.

The NFCC want all care homes in the UK to be fitted with sprinkler systems. By retrofitting and requiring new build care homes to have sprinklers it can help protect people and these buildings now and for future generations. With a growing and ageing population many more people could be reliant on care.

Sprinklers reduce fire damage by around 75 per cent and people are 50 per cent less likely to be injured. On 99 per cent of occasions sprinklers can control or extinguish a fire, according to research by NFCC and the National Fire Sprinkler Network.

However, unlike in Scotland, Wales and many other countries, there is still no Building Regulation requirement in England for care homes to be fitted with sprinklers. It is therefore very disappointing and difficult to understand how Newgrange Care Home has been rebuilt without sprinklers installed, against the recommendation of Hertfordshire Fire and Rescue Service.

The inquest into the deaths concluded in February this year and found ‘inadequate compartmentation in the roof space had contributed to the deaths’. Evidence from the fire service and an independent fire safety expert highlighted if a sprinkler system had been installed, the two deaths were likely to have been prevented.

There is no Building Regulation requirement for sprinklers to be fitted in care homes in England despite the fact residents can have additional mobility and/or cognitive needs, which cause delays in evacuation should a fire occur. Some care homes do choose to install sprinkler systems for both life and property protection, but these are the exception – the majority do not.

Claire Miles, daughter of Daphne, commented: “Yes, there is a cost to fitting sprinklers, but there’s a greater human cost to those who risk life and limb for others – and those firefighters called to Newgrange certainly did that. There’s a cost to losing those we love before their time and in such terrible circumstances.”

Senior Hertfordshire coroner Geoffrey Sullivan wrote to Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Rt Hon Michael Gove requesting action be taken to prevent future deaths. He also formally raised a concern that sprinkler systems are not a mandatory requirement in care homes – whose occupants may have limited or no independent mobility and therefore at greater risk of fire.

The government’s response indicated that as part of the ongoing technical review of Approved Document B, which provides fire safety guidance to meet building regulations, there may be future potential changes. This could mean improvements to fire safety measures in housing for vulnerable residents. It also stated analysis for sprinklers in care homes will be accelerated and available this year.

It also pointed out that a more ‘robust regulatory regime’ will apply to higher risk buildings led by the Building Safety Regulator. This would mean care homes which are at least 18 metres in height or at least seven storeys, would fall within this new regime. However, NFCC has concerns that this height threshold means that care home settings are unlikely to fall within it as they are very rarely more than two or three storeys in height.

The definition of ‘high risk’ buildings should not just apply to high-rise – it should be widened out to where vulnerable people sleep and consider the needs of those who live in the buildings and their ability to respond to a fire incident.

The government in England lags behind many other developed nations, for example, Australia, which require sprinklers in all care homes and closer to home Scotland and Wales where sprinklers are already required in new build and converted care homes.

Mind the gap

Electrical Safety First has welcomed the Building Safety Act in taking a step closer to addressing the safety gap on electrical safety in high-rise buildings

Commenting on the Building Safety Act, which received Royal Assent last month, Lesley Rudd, Chief Executive of leading consumer protection charity, Electrical Safety First, said: “We are delighted the Bill takes us a step closer to addressing the ‘safety gap’ around electrical safety in high rises – by including a requirement for the government to complete a cost-benefit analysis for introducing regular electrical installations checks in all residential tower blocks in England.

“Currently, only private landlords are required to undertake five yearly electrical safety checks, despite most high rises being composed of mixed tenures. England, unlike Scotland (with Wales set to follow suit), has not yet extended this requirement to social housing and there is no such legislation covering homeowners across the UK. This is despite the fact that, in 2021 alone, electricity caused 355 fires in high rises and, according to government figures, the number has increased over the last three years.

“The charity has led the call for a uniform approach to electrical safety in tower blocks and we have worked closely with Lord Foster of Bath to help address this regulatory gap, which leaves families and buildings at risk. We want to see mandated, five yearly, electrical safety checks in both social housing and leaseholds in mixed tenure high rises, to protect all occupants and ensure consistency and effectiveness. Not only would this protect hundreds of thousands of people, it will also help provide the peace of mind that everyone wants to feel in their own home.”