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Unnecessary Risk (and Ways to Avoid It)

Unlimited fines and up to two years in prison are the ultimate penalties for serious breaches of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005.

The majority of failures to comply with the Order’s regulations are dealt with through formal/informal enforcement. However, the possibility of prosecution and imprisonment are sobering reminders of the risks in failing to meet minimum fire safety standards.

In many sectors, high levels of responsibility for safety are matched by equally high levels of required training. Regular and rigorous knowledge testing, plus the awarding of qualifications are in place to prove that individuals have the skills they need to meet clearly-defined levels of proficiency.

It begs the question why then in our industry, where gaps in knowledge and failure to follow guidelines can have such dire consequences for life and property, do so few formal qualifications exist?

Every year, new cases emerge where failures to comply with the terms of the Regulatory Reform Order are found to have ‘put one or more relevant persons at risk of death or serious injury in case of fire’ (Article 32 (1) of the Order).

At the heart of these incidents lie a number of sickeningly familiar, yet easily avoided mistakes. Among them are: locked/blocked fire exits and escape routes; poor/no staff fire training; lack of/inadequate maintenance of fire alarms; absence of fire doors and emergency lighting, plus, in an overwhelming majority of cases, lack of suitable fire risk assessment.

In a perfect world, high quality fire risk assessments would be universally carried out and their requirements and recommendations carefully followed; staff would be thoroughly and regularly trained in fire safety; and only the highest quality fire safety systems and equipment would be installed and maintained to industry-leading standards.

However, reality is of course somewhat different, typified by shortcuts through time pressures, gaps in understanding and acceptance of inadequacies which inevitably lead to fire safety failures.

Despite this somewhat gloomy picture, there is a great deal that can be done to ensure that quality fire protection is in place and that the risks of breaching fire regulations are mitigated.  

It all starts with the fire risk assessment

The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 places responsibility for fire risk assessments in non-domestic buildings squarely on the shoulders of the responsible person. Their primary duties are to:

·        Carry out a fire risk assessment identifying the risks and hazards in a building, with special consideration for those who may be especially vulnerable, and to review it regularly.

·        Eliminate or reduce the risk from fire as far as is reasonably practical, paying particular attention to ensure fire safety in areas where flammable or explosive materials are stored.

·        Put in place, and maintain, appropriate fire safety measures.

·        Create a plan to deal with emergency situations.

·        Provide staff with fire safety-related information, instruction and training.

·        Document findings and actions taken.

·        Review the findings on a regular basis.

It’s a role that shouldn’t be undertaken lightly and, to be done thoroughly demands specialist knowledge and experience. Nevertheless, the Order does not prescribe the necessary competencies of those appointed as responsible person. Although this is to some extent logical – in that the nature and complexity of premises varies dramatically – it also leaves the door wide open to people with no knowledge of fire safety being left in charge of this crucial measure. 

The competence of the responsible person is therefore one of many ‘grey areas’ that affect the levels of overall fire safety achieved.

Where people are aware of the extent of the responsible person’s duties and honest in recognising they are not best placed to carry them out, they can of course appoint a third party. However, the same lack of knowledge that drove them to seek external help in the first place can also hinder their ability to judge the suitability of anyone they consider appointing.

To help with this problem, and in response to widespread concerns over the poor quality – and sometimes absence – of proper fire risk assessments, industry bodies are tackling the issue by introducing competency criteria, such as those published by the FRACC (Fire Risk Assessment Competency Council) and the AFP (Association of Specialist Fire Protection).

It’s worth noting that although fire risk assessments are a cornerstone of the Regulatory Reform Order, their real value – even when carried out by a fully competent fire risk assessor – depends on an organisation’s actions in response to them. Now that demands a whole new set of competencies and expertise.

Ensuring fire alarm system quality and reliability

Central to fire risk management in any public, commercial or multi-occupancy building, are effective fire detection and alarm systems.

To adhere to fire regulations, a business’s appointed responsible person must be able to prove that the fire system within particular premises is designed, installed, commissioned and maintained by a competent contractor in line with standards.

Luckily, there are several steps that can be taken to ensure that this is done.

Specifying the best equipment for the job at the outset

Accurate specification is critical to ensuring fire safety. However, the ever-increasing range of new technologies coming to market can make it hard to choose the optimum solution. This is where third-party certification can be a huge help.

EN 54 Part 13-approved products for example bring with them a high degree of reassurance. To gain EN 54-13 status, products are rigorously tested to clearly prescribed levels. These tests prove beyond doubt that individual component parts, when combined into one system, will work together reliably in full fire conditions.

This near-guarantee of optimal fire system performance and proper protection of lives and property offers a high degree of peace of mind to those specifying, installing and ultimately using the chosen fire system.

Five things you need to know about EN 54 part 13:

1.      Approved systems are rigorously third-party tested, so you can be sure they'll work together.

2.      Approved systems continuously check for faults, alerting you to potential problems that could compromise the system and put building occupants at risk.

3.      There's a huge gulf between the checks thta individual manufacturers carry out to say they 'designed to' EN 54-13 standards, and the rigorous tests that independent laboratories conduct to award approved to EN 54-13 status.

4.      Approved panels can save you time and money because they monitor the voltage and current being used on each circuit, so you can check if a system is overloaded and correctly diagnose faults quickly.

5.      Approved systems bring ultimate peace of mind because you know they'll work efficiently, they flag up issues before they become critical and they are fast and efficient - giving building occupants maximum evacuation time.

Of course, EN 54-13 is just one of many third-party certifications that help prove the quality and reliability of life safety products, and every country has its own standards and requirements.

In the UK, adherence to BS 5839-1:2017 is another fundamental way of ensuring the effective design, installation and maintenance of fire detection and alarm systems in non-residential buildings. The guidelines within this comprehensive standard also cover responsibilities and competencies for carrying out fire risk assessments.

The fire system’s ease of use is also an important consideration. If a system is straightforward to install, use and maintain, it is far less likely to stretch the ‘competency boundaries’ of all those who come into contact with it. From specifier and commissioning engineer to end user and maintenance technician, the easier the system is to work with, the less likely it is to pose problems and compromise fire safety.

Another effective way of minimising risk and gaining peace of mind, particularly if you are not an expert in fire systems, is to opt for an established fire equipment brand which invests in research and development, has current installations in a wide range of locations and enjoys a reputation for performance and reliability. Asking trusted colleagues for recommendations and requesting demos and project references from manufacturers are all useful starting points.

Ensuring competent installation

The performance of any fire system is directly linked to the quality of its installation. Several manufacturers, including Advanced, work closely with industry bodies, such as the FIA, to develop training modules that are built around the competencies identified as essential to achieving reliable fire system installation and operation.

Although manufacturer-provided training understandably tends to focus on that company’s specific products, the best manufacturer-led courses take a much wider view.

Look out for training that includes customised content specific to project, installation, commissioning, maintenance and technical support engineers, as well as for estimators, commercial salespeople, end-users, system operators and those charged with training others.

To be of maximum value, the course content should also draw heavily on practical examples of good and bad practice in the field and highlight the common day-to-day assumptions and pitfalls that most often compromise safety and fire system integrity.

Ideally, the manufacturer’s training will be provided free and frequently during the lifetime of the fire system. In this way, there are no budgetary barriers to receiving vital information about product updates and emerging best practice. This also ensures that competency is maintained by refreshing knowledge, avoiding the development of bad habits in routine work and sharing the latest techniques and thinking.

Thanks to industry pressure for a change to the status quo, it is certainly not just manufacturers who provide training. A growing number of industry bodies, including the FPA and FIA, offer courses covering many aspects of the competencies required for the safe design, installation, commissioning and maintenance of fire systems.  Indeed, the FIA is now a qualification awarding authority.

Choosing only qualified installers who are accredited by reputable and well-established bodies is a great way to get further peace of mind that your fire protection measures are fit-for-purpose.

It’s also worth remembering that in your choice of both products and installers, the old adage ‘buy cheap, buy twice’ applies in spades. Fixating on price not value can lead to poor choices that compromise installations and expose the responsible person to unnecessary risk.

Although on the face of it, the Regulatory Reform Order makes the responsible person solely accountable for fire safety, in reality, it’s a collective responsibility.

Whether we’re looking on the micro level at ways in which people can help reduce fire risk in a particular building, or on the macro level at how we can improve industry-wide standards; to be effective, fire safety requires vigilance and active participation. For this reason, I’d urge you to join the debate and play your part in promoting the need for wider knowledge-sharing and recognised levels of competency across our industry.