The fire-safety industry recognises Fire and Rescue Services have multiple responsibilities when it comes to keeping people safe. What requires greater collaboration, however, is the discussion on competency. Lewis Ramsay QFSM MBA, BAFE Director and former Assistant Chief Officer for the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, investigates this topic.
The ‘spinning plates’ analogy of the amount of responsibility Fire and Rescue Services undertake across the United Kingdom cannot be understated. There is a huge array of work that goes somewhat unseen to the public in the interest of their safety. This can also be said for the competency sector of the fire-safety industry, which deserves greater recognition and appreciation. As a current Director of BAFE I have observed the work and robust collaboration with the industry that goes into ensuring these third-party certification schemes represent the best levels of competency possible. This is primarily in the interest of creating safe environments for users of these buildings, but there is also a far less discussed rationale for this: the safety of emergency services.
During my tenure in the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service I have on multiple occasions had to quickly evaluate the risk of sending fellow colleagues into a building on fire. This is never a simple decision for anyone leading a response to a fire, it takes what the recently published BSI Flex 8670 v2.0 document describes as SKEB:
‘For an individual to be considered competent, sector-specific competence frameworks should require that individuals have the appropriate skills, knowledge and experience, combined with appropriate behaviours, to be able to fulfil their defined role, function or activity and carry out appropriate tasks. This is sometimes referred to in shorthand as SKEB.’
Although the document referenced is specifically discussing the overarching framework for building safety competence of individuals, it rings true for all individuals working in the field of life safety. This also greatly applies to organisations working within the fire-safety industry and their competency and management systems should be independently regulated.
Guidance supports legislation
Fire-safety legislation is supported by government guidance across the United Kingdom. Within these documents UKAS Accredited Third Party Certification is strongly recommended to demonstrate the law is being followed. Scottish Government guidance states:
‘Fire protection products should be fit for purpose and properly installed and maintained, while installation and maintenance contractors should be competent. Third-party certification, where a reputable certification body independently checks competencies and processes and that standards are being met, is one method of providing a reasonable assurance of quality of products and services, provided that the certification body itself is a competent evaluator. Accreditation by UKAS is an indication that a third-party certification body is a competent evaluator. Products and services that are not third-party approved by an accredited body are not necessarily less reliable, but accredited third-party certification can offer assurance.’ – Practical fire safety guidance for existing non-residential premises, Chapter 4: Managing Fire Safety (124)
I know first-hand that Fire and Rescue Guidance echoes government guidance. Even as this article is being written, East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service have published a plea to businesses in reducing false fire alarms, subsequently reducing stress on the service. This comes after a 24-hour period in which they were called to eight false alarms. Included within actions to help in this reduction is to ‘make sure it is installed properly, that you know how it works and it is serviced regularly by a competent person. The British Standards Institute’s BS 5839 has recommendations for the planning, design, installation, commissioning and maintenance of these systems. If these are followed, a false alarm issue is unlikely to occur.’
This requirement of using a ‘competent person’ needs further prominence, pointing people towards avenues where they can find organisations that fit this criteria. UKAS Accredited Third Party Certification exists within multiple areas of passive and active fire safety now, and using a company that does not hold appropriate certification could be perceived as a major red flag leading to further scrutiny of installed and maintained systems in place.
In these unprecedented times with Covid-19 widespread, talking about prevention of catching or spreading the virus is commonplace. We need to bring what we have learnt about how pragmatic safety management has been in reacting to coronavirus guidance and adopt this for fire safety. Stephen Adams, Chief Executive of BAFE, has discussed how both issues affect life safety so we need to treat both as seriously as each other without any hesitation. This astute observation should be used by the Fire and Rescue Services moving forward in future observations and prosecutions.
Many buildings have changed their intended purpose and/or layouts in response to Covid-19, and fire safety should be reassessed appropriately. In June last year, the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service stressed to duty holders who would be reopening businesses to ‘be aware of the threat of fire’. Alasdair Perry, SFRS Deputy Assistant Chief Officer for Prevention and Protection, commented:
‘During the last few months many of these workplaces will have understandably and correctly taken measures to protect staff from the spread of Covid-19. We are therefore urging all duty holders to consider if these measures, including the installation of plastic screening, could have any impact on their fire detection or fire-safety measures.’
This will be reiterated again as we come out of the current lockdown and more businesses can begin to reopen. He concluded the request in June 2020 by saying that ‘these have been trying times for the whole country, but we cannot become complacent and must continue to work together to drive down the risk of fire across Scotland.’ This is appropriate for the entire United Kingdom. For example, Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service (MFRS) issued their own warning in June also. Station Manager Bill Shepherd, MFRS Protection Department said:
‘As government guidance changes and lockdown restrictions are eased, more and more people will be returning to work but we understand that businesses are still not operating at what they would deem to be “normal”.
‘Coronavirus is not an excuse for disregarding your [fire safety] responsibilities and businesses must ensure that they have an adequate amount of competent people to help in the implementation of both preventative and protective fire-safety measures.’
From experience I understand the limitations the Fire and Rescue Services across the United Kingdom deal with regarding enforcing fire-safety legislation. This has been made even more difficult with the pandemic, but I know this vital work continues. This is more important than ever, and I repeat DACO Perry’s request for businesses to seriously consider if everything has been actioned to minimise fire risk. Any breaches of fire-safety law will not be taken lightly as it has been proven with Covid, government guidance can be followed to the letter in the interest of life safety.
During a Business Safety Web Chat hosted by Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service last year they commented: ‘Fire safety legislation is still being enforced [and] we have measures in place to enforce this … The responsible person still has responsibilities under the fire-safety order and any changes need to be included within your fire risk assessment looking to see if any additional measures may need to be put into place to ensure fire safety is met.’
The risk of complacency
Last year, BAFE reported on the substantial fire which occurred at the Law Society in London (1 February 2020). The Law Society’s Head of Corporate Real Estate, Tom Booton said: ‘The Brigade has a priority to preserve life, then the building, then contents. If [you have] plans, and know your building, you’ll save lives, time and you’ll probably save more of your building and its contents. Never think it won’t happen to you.’
BAFE noted the last thing they would like to see is any business fall victim to fire, especially under the current circumstances. Mr Booton’s advice is clear: ‘Never think it won’t happen to you.’ BAFE added: ‘Don’t be complacent or disregard your fire safety as the focus remains on coronavirus safety measures. All factors of safety must be acknowledged for people’s wellbeing.’
BAFE are currently running a campaign (Don’t Just Specify, Verify) dedicated to ensuring due diligence is performed by premises management. Don’t Just Specify, Verify is an important message to these people that after finding a provider, their third-party certification must be checked to confirm it is appropriate. This should be done before allowing them to perform any fire-safety work on-site. It is simple actions such as these that will demonstrate responsible persons/duty holders are exercising good judgement to reduce or eliminate fire-safety risk as best as possible. It is important, as industry professionals and Fire and Rescue personnel, to remind premises management of guidance and how UKAS Accredited Third Party Certification is strongly recommended.
For more information, go to www.bafe.org.uk