More than ever before, fire-safety regulations are under intense scrutiny as time passes since the Grenfell Tower tragedy. However, when it comes to legal obligations around fire safety, many UK businesses are still worryingly unaware of the rules and the consequences – despite growing calls to make real changes to the health and safety regulations that are currently in place.
A major stumbling block faced by the industry is that if regulations are introduced bit by bit, then they will also be implemented bit by bit, which can be more of a hindrance than a help. This means that, despite the same shared goals, every business will have its own level of commitment to fire safety. But best practice and regulation alone are not enough to ensure occupant safety across the board; there are many pieces to the puzzle. The safest bet is a complete, end-to-end overhaul of the way businesses understand and apply fire-safety regulations. While the ongoing public inquiry is driving momentum behind this, there is always more work to be done.
Take the Fire Safety Order of 2005. The Order, which states that fire-risk assessments must be ‘suitable and sufficient’, should be the starting point from which businesses determine their fire-safety strategy. Sadly, in reality, outdated fire-risk assessments, lapsed certificates and ill-prepared systems are all too common. UK businesses need to reconsider their policies and ensure that they are not only up to regulatory standard but fully equipped to protect their employees, residents and visitors from harm.
On a similar note, take 2017’s updated British Standard 5839-1 regulation as a second example. With the extended rules now in place, companies need to understand how they will be affected and what the requirements will be. The standard, which deals with the design, installation and maintenance of fire-detection and alarm systems, now calls for greater attention to the reduction of false alarms, increased numbers of sensor types in different zones and improved maintenance.
Due diligence requirements are being tightened up, and companies will find loopholes much more closely policed. Not only that, but investment in hardware, including covers for call points, is going to be necessary. Change will have to come at both the operational and the budget stages – and preparation is key. The Grenfell inquiry is going to have a major impact on practices. Now it’s up to individual companies to change the way they approach fire safety and ensure that they can keep occupants as safe as possible.
Case in point: sprinklers
For a case in point of how regulatory changes should be implemented, let’s consider sprinkler systems. In their current form, there is a requirement that buildings above a certain size and application must have sprinkler systems built in from the earliest stages of planning.
As the Grenfell inquiry progresses and brings its recommendations to parliament, we can expect a far larger proportion of public buildings required to have sprinkler systems retrofitted, and new builds needing to incorporate them from the very beginning.
But it’s not just a matter of installing sprinkler systems: servicing, maintenance, system design, and operation must all be properly attended to. Safety teams must ensure that all sprinkler systems are kept in full working order, checking components on a regular basis and running simulations where possible.
Regular hazard reviews and testing carried out by certified companies is also essential, and systems must be checked by qualified engineers. There should be an attitude of honesty when it comes to upgrades and change – if a system fails to comply with regulations, or has degraded over time, then cost worries must always come second to compliance.
But how to choose a competent assessor in a crowded marketplace? Not only do you need to ensure that your hardware is being tested on a regular basis by independent observers, you also need to conduct regular fire-risk assessments of the entire building. You need to consider everything from exits, gangways and ventilation to detection, alarms and evacuation procedures. From the furthest reach of the building to the place of ultimate safety, you need to have considered every potential hindrance and risk to give you the best chance of protecting your building occupants.
However, that doesn’t have to mean that there is a black-and-white choice between a satisfactory balance sheet and the safety of employees and the local community. By working with an expert fire-risk assessor, businesses can achieve regulatory compliance and desirable safety levels on a workable budget through a combination of intelligent consultancy and expertise.
In the rush to avoid repeating past mistakes, there is certainly a risk that some fire-safety teams may settle for less well-resourced assessors, or those without the expertise required to effectively and safely discern the condition of the building, just to make sure that something is done. To avoid this, companies should be looking for professional organisations with a proven track record of successful assessments – who should be product agnostic – to conduct the review.
A full-service offering is a positive sign that points to a good provider – a consultative organisation that can assess needs and suggest solutions accordingly, specific to particular environments and systems, is key to reducing risk and achieving compliance. Even better, companies that can provide assessment, servicing and long-term maintenance across an entire building, site or facility are most likely to be able to help you comply with new regulations and protect your staff and assets.
Where to find a competent assessor? A good starting point is the Institute of Fire Engineers website, which lists all registered assessors, including a brief synopsis of their areas of expertise, skills and training. The mark of competence is a tick box stating property protection and life safety – it’s like the CORGI mark for gas engineers.
A strong fire-risk assessment – the advantages
A good fire-risk assessment can be very literally the difference between life and death. We all like to think that it couldn’t happen to us, that our office or home must be safe, couldn’t possibly fall foul of a stray spark or a dropped match, but the statistics say otherwise. In the year ending September 2017, Fire and Rescue services attended over 170,000 fires in the UK, and there were 346 fatalities as a result (including 71 in the Grenfell Tower disaster – full details are available on the gov.uk fire-statistics page).
We’ve all experienced the directionless panic that can set in when people undergo an unplanned fire drill. That’s particularly heightened in cases where false alarms are common – frequent evacuations as a result of poor maintenance or system management breed complacency.
Why is this relevant to fire-risk assessments? The better your assessment, the more well-equipped you’ll be to plan your evacuation procedure, as well as to locate and maintain your detection and suppression systems. A regularly updated fire-risk assessment is the key to understanding the potential pitfalls of your building, whether that’s narrow staircases, a small number of exterior exit points or simply a need for more alarm call points.
Some of those factors will be out of your control, but you can take advice from your assessors and install new hardware or remove obstacles from gangways. Above all, you’ll be better able to draft a well-informed evacuation plan to ensure that all occupants know what’s required of them in the event of a fire.
Aside from all-important personal safety, there are also business considerations involved in fire-risk assessments, the most prominent among them being regulatory compliance and future commercial planning. We began by considering some of the major regulatory requirements that have been introduced under BS 5839-1:2017. The best way to help yourself prepare for compliance and ensure that you do a good job of implementing the changes is to have a comprehensive fire-risk assessment on hand to help you understand how the rules will apply to your particular situation.
The ability to plan effectively will also help you to look after the bottom line without sacrificing due diligence. There are worries that sweeping changes in fire regulations will cost the earth, and when faced with a whole new raft of purchases and process updates, it can feel daunting and expensive. However, by beginning now and making sure you have a comprehensive understanding of your facility’s strengths and weaknesses with regard to fire safety, you’ll be able to get a basic understanding of what’s going to need changing, allowing you to plan any necessary expenses and review multiple tenders to get the best price.
The scrutiny on fire regulations won’t end anytime soon – and nor should it. Businesses of all sizes and square footage must shape up, as sweeping the ins and outs of fire-safety regulations under the carpet cannot be allowed to happen. As well as being unethical, it will soon be illegal. A fire-risk assessment that cuts no corners will be key to being prepared – so too is selecting the right partner for the job, who has a vast knowledge of the changing regulatory tide and a proven track record. Fire safety deserves the respect and attention of every business owner or building manager. There’s far too much to lose by not staying in the loop.
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