Recognising both existing failings in the sector and a rapidly changing world, it seems that fire safety will have to evolve. But new drivers and requirements could see a very different type of change from those the sector is used to.
As the Grenfell Inquiry continues to identify fundamental flaws in the current approach, it seems timely to consider the future of fire safety. This is reinforced by looking more widely to a world which is poised to create different risks, and just as significantly, will provide the opportunity for new types of solutions. Against this backdrop, it seems inevitable that fire safety will change, but how and what will be the driver?
Will change continue with the prevailing incremental approach, which is founded on the principle of adapting the existing infrastructure and capability within the established sector to address any flaws or meet new challenges? Or is a disruptive element emerging that will change the very nature of fire safety, both in terms of its focus and delivery?
At this stage, it is perhaps useful to acknowledge that the fire-safety sector is not homogeneous. The type of premise, occupancy and risk all influence the type of solution that is desired or determined. These span from fully automated to manual interventions. As such, it is recognised that, at a practical level, the issues discussed may affect different parts in different ways and over different timescales. However, the trends and principles discussed are likely to have a cross-cutting impact.
The existing fire-safety infrastructure has the advantage of being well established and supported by a range of long-standing enabling architecture. These include legislation, regulations, standards, trade associations and inspection/audit regimes. In many ways, these combine to create a system that is almost designed to maintain the status quo or a state of relative inertia.
It is also a complex and multi-faceted sector, covering a range of commercial and statutory activities from prevention through to response. There is no overall owner to ensure end-to-end accountability or functioning of the system. As such, it is a largely self-organising, self-interested and fragmented ‘sum of the parts’ environment, from which specific and intentional outcomes are often assumed, but far from guaranteed. In fact, under these conditions a certain level of systemic failure is inevitable.
The Grenfell Inquiry has already made a series of recommendations to improve fire safety but, in line with previous reviews, has done so through the lens of amending the current fire-safety model. Perhaps long-standing familiarity with the default approach, or fear of the challenge of transformation, means this seems to be the only option ever considered. For organisations in the sector this may be welcome as it provides the comfort of manageable levels of incremental change and minimal disruption. However, this raises an important question about whether this constant adaptation of the default model is part of the problem. Is the existing fire-safety infrastructure capable of perpetual ad-hoc and localised adaptation to accommodate the latest amendment or lessons? Or, over time, do these sporadic repairs distort the original concept, making it impossible for any individual or organisation to fully understand how the system works. This is compounded by fire safety comprising a myriad of separate component parts each of which themselves are often subject to interpretation and human factors. The resulting degree of system complexity itself then becomes a major source of risk, both in normal operation and under error conditions. Undoubtedly, they also create the potential for unintended consequences up or downstream of their point of introduction. In a complex, disjointed and dynamic system without a clear owner, many of these may not even be noticed until it is too late.
Despite this, in the current continuous improvement approach, the focus remains on the existing delivery mechanisms with the assumption that enhancing them will naturally result in better fire-safety outcomes. In some ways this is reminiscent of the phrase that when you have a hammer everything looks like a nail. Effectively, the existing solution provides pre-determined boundaries for any change and inhibits the consideration or development of options that sit outside of these.
Vision-led or disruptive change
Of course, fire safety does not exist in a vacuum but also operates against the backdrop of a rapidly changing world. This provides an independent influence creating both new challenges and opportunities. Historically, external forces have not been a particularly significant or sustained force but that is changing. In fact, the sector may have a limited window to demonstrate and retain its leadership role, albeit one that is different to the current version.
Instead of asking how to improve the established fire-safety infrastructure, the question should be, ‘how do we help people stay safe from fire?’. Increasingly, these two questions do not lead to the same answer, and that should be a cause for concern. There are many differences between how the professionals and public understand or experience fire which, in turn, creates a gap in their respective fire-safety aspirations and needs. Bringing together the public and professional perspective is a key requirement for advancing fire safety. But that is another discussion.
With potentially only limited time and a lot of uncertainty about the future, perhaps the most useful contribution the sector could make would be to co-create (with all stakeholders including the public) a new fire-safety vision.
Creating a new vision offers the potential to start by establishing a clear and unifying purpose; a plain language and succinct but ambitious aspiration that can be shared by professionals and the public they serve. This would be fire safety’s North Star, the pursuit of which, would guide all activity. Accompanying this should be a set of principles (including values) of fire safety. In combination, the vision, and principles, would create a robust framework in which innovation could take place by reducing the influence of some of the more prescriptive practices that inhibit outcome-focused change. So, for example, one principle may be that when a fire occurs, rapid detection and extinction as close to the time of ignition would be the aspiration as that is when the risk and harm caused will generally be at their lowest. With the current emphasis on professional response, it is easy to see how such a principle could shift the focus for investment and solutions to dwelling fires further upstream from where it is now. An outcome-oriented vision and principles would remove some of the barriers that currently inhibit contributions from sources outside the sector (including the public, whose significant role in tackling fires is widely ignored).
Any gap between fire-safety performance based on continuing to improve the existing structure rather than adopting an outcome-oriented model is measured in lives, injuries, financial loss and other forms of social harm. How do we assess when the benefit threshold for disrupting the status quo has been reached? And when in public safety terms is it no longer defensible to ignore alternative approaches capable of better outcomes, however disruptive to the existing professional sector?
Concepts to inform the future
Whether the evolution or transformation route is taken, there are some key concepts that should form the bedrock from which fire safety is developed. Three of these are outlined below and each of these is likely to require new expertise and ways of working in the sector.
1. Human-centred fire safety
Human-centred design is a widely used approach to ensure that services or products align with real-world needs, preferences and use. In doing so, the potential for erroneous assumptions by the provider is reduced or avoided. A human-centred mindset and methodologies would help to ensure a shared purpose between fire-safety professionals and the public, which is not currently the case in many areas. Design-led approaches are also increasingly being used to tackle complex problems as a means to encourage creativity and inspire innovation.
2. Evidence informed
Evidence comes in many forms and using the right type for the task is clearly important. Good risk management cannot be achieved without diverse evidence sources and good knowledge-management practice. The evidence base in many areas of fire safety is dangerously narrow and further diminished by the lack of a co-ordinated research strategy within the sector. As a minimum, strategies, policies and interventions should be developed with, and cite, the key evidence used (and identify assumptions made). This provides transparency, consistency and the means to know when reviews or amendments are required. The adoption of formal and intelligent evidence-management systems would enhance real-time trend tracking and consistency of knowledge.
3. Technology enabled
Technology for technology’s sake should not be the driver for change without a clear purpose and benefit. But where there is clarity of purpose, it will undoubtedly be the enabler for better fire-safety outcomes for all stakeholders. It has the potential to transform and connect every stage of the process from improving the knowledge base through to developing intelligent and automated fire-safety solutions. However, as it has done in many other sectors, technology also has the potential to rapidly disrupt and transform the current fire-safety model. Technology may be the most influential factor in shaping the future of fire safety and dictating the speed of change. Affordable and intelligent technology integrated into smart homes and intelligent city strategies may quickly democratise solutions, removing reliance on professional intermediaries.
Overall, it seems that the exact future of fire safety is still yet to be determined. Currently, it appears more likely to evolve or transform organically from the influence of multiple disparate sources rather than through the implementation of an inclusive and unifying vision or design. At the heart of this is the top-down view which continues to see government and its agencies empowering the professionals as the solution. However, increasingly in other sectors, there is a bottom-up trend of empowering the citizens. This results from both the democratising effect of affordable home technology but also the ideological call from multiple think tanks to bring government and public services closer to the communities they were set up to serve. This represents a fundamental shift in the philosophy and provision of public services from ‘done to’ (command and control) to ‘done with’ (support and enable). This trend can already be seen in many sectors, including health, where the market size is an obvious incentive for new and disruptive entrants. This includes those who see the biggest opportunity as developing products and services targeted directly to the public rather than ones that must first pass through professional bodies. What is learnt in health will flow through to other sectors, including fire safety.
Continuing the current incremental path may be the preference of many in the fire-safety sector. But this approach increasingly looks vulnerable to technology-driven disruption which could lead to a rapid and market-driven transformation. History or professional standing may offer little or no protection when the public gets to choose what they want rather than have it decided for them. Automation and robotic technology will reduce the dependency on human interventions across many back-office and front-line activities. For those organisations prepared to grasp it, this offers a rare opportunity to be proactive and create a strategy that uses the released capacity to add value to the customer or public, enhancing their experience and outcomes.
Ignoring, and not planning for, this reality may mean that some existing fire-safety stakeholders will have too little time to respond effectively. In doing so, they may put themselves at risk of becoming partially, or wholly side-lined. In that respect the fire and rescue service (FRS) look particularly vulnerable. When FRS was established, there was no choice but to use people to fight fires and for many years the professional or organised response has provided the best option. The cost of this benefit was the delay in tackling the fire caused by waiting for the FRS to arrive, which was seen as a reasonable trade-off. However, that is no longer the case and, whilst attendance times have increased, technology increasingly offers automated solutions that can be immediately deployed at the point of ignition. And the public have long demonstrated an innate (i.e. without training) ability to intervene quickly and safely at the early stage of a fire, which could be enhanced with better products and support. When considering all the forces at play, the reliance on the FRS as we know it could be significantly diminished within as little as ten years.
And yet, if the collective will and urgency is there, it may still be possible for the sector to create a compelling shared vision allowing it to be at the forefront of a new direction for fire safety. In this respect, both Singapore and Dubai are pioneering innovative approaches that offer inspiration for this path.
However, as it has already done in many other sectors, technology has the potential to rapidly disrupt the current fire-safety delivery model regardless of whether it has its own vision or not. The role of the public will also be influential. Even if it is not willingly offered to them, they may demand an effective say in shaping fire safety, partly in response to the Grenfell legacy. But also as general consumers, they may also be decisive in purchasing new products that empower them to manage their own safety, shifting the balance of power.
Regardless of how it is decided and or the specific form it takes, it must be hoped that the future of fire safety has a greater focus on the experience and outcomes of all stakeholders. In this respect, there is much to be done to better incorporate a human or public perspective, which is currently poorly understood and represented. In highly regulated sectors such as fire safety, compliance and conformity with standards can easily be seen as the measure of success. But fire safety must also be understood as a human experience requiring solutions designed with creativity and empathy.
As market and community forces are likely to be increasingly influential, they should better reflect and deliver the experiences and outcomes desired by the public. It can only be hoped that by acknowledging the strength of the emerging forces, those within the sector will seek to adapt and collaborate. That way the vast expertise in the sector will be retained and continue to provide its invaluable perspective. For those prepared to grasp it, this is undoubtedly an exciting and defining time for fire safety. One which could help people be, and feel, much safer from the threat of fire.
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