We cannot compromise on fire safety

Last month, Matt Wrack, the General Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, condemned the Building Safety Bill as ‘vitally flawed’. 

He’s particularly worried the legislation, in its current form, makes allowances for private sector firms to ‘step in’, if fire and rescue services are not in a position to assist the new Building Safety Regulator with fire matters relating to HRRBs (Higher Risk Residential Buildings). 

Once again, alarm bells are ringing that private profit is being prioritised over protecting people. 

Wrack’s observation is correct. Fundamentally, if the Bill’s intention is to rely on the private sector to manage some of the validation steps, effectively allowing the industry to self-certify, then it’s undermining its whole purpose. This will create an avoidable and completely unnecessary risk.

Why is this so important? Well, it’s because the UK construction industry still has a severely limited knowledge base when it comes to fire safety. The prospect of knee-jerk turning to the private sector for solutions is clear evidence of this. 

Putting this in wider context, the Institution of Fire Engineers has recently informed MHCLG there are only 291 chartered fire engineers currently practicing in the UK. It’s a very low number when taken in conjunction against construction output, whether new build or retrofit. Whilst you don’t need a chartered engineer to sign-off on a building inspection, you do need individuals with aligned practical competencies in active and passive fire systems, not solely academic or theoretical knowledge. 

It’s true the UK fire and rescue services are consulted regularly during planning and development locally. The same service can equally apply to a larger complex or development, but my concern is they are rarely invited to more extensive and complicated verification or system witnessing testing before handover. What a waste of an essential and ready resource. 

As a sector we need a wholesale expansion in our knowledge, and fast. At the heart of surmounting this problem will be to increase the importance and standing of those involved in field inspection and testing activities. Professionals across the built environment need to hold these personnel with the respect they deserve. We also need to be doing more to encourage people into these roles. 

Fundamentally, to prevent an influx of third-party, private sector ‘Experts’, we will need more officially accredited specialist inspectors and clerks of works. This will improve specification of fire detection and protection systems, fire and smoke management systems and the undertaking of cause and effect testing, integrated testing, emergency power provision, means of escape and egress and fire door testing to name a few. 

Training for these roles has now reached a critical point. If we are really sincere about making systematic change to the way we’ve been doing business for the last 25 years. 

Institutions like the CITB and others have an opportunity now to make a real difference, working with organisations such as ICWCI and the UK Fire & Rescue Services (and their fire and engineering departments) to target the skills shortage in this field. 

As the Building Safety Bill progresses through Parliament, it would be nice to see these particular points scrutinised and revisions made so we don’t end up with another self-certification culture, a situation which led to many of the problems we currently face. Skilling-up more official, impartial personnel to conduct more rigorous and thorough fire inspections, supported by legislation-backed authority is the obvious answer. 

We want to get to a scenario where all are invested and all share responsibility for ensuring the highest fire safety standard. Some of the work I undertook a few years ago in the Middle East offers a good example of a potential framework. Although the projects were new airports, the same rules could equally apply to HRRBs.

Whilst there are considerable jurisdiction, cultural and procedural differences in the Middle East when compared to the UK, there are similarities which can be applied.

Both the above infrastructure projects relied on British Standards and/or US NFPA standards for guidance to support local approval and certification. In both instances I worked for the principal delivery Contractor and we stood alongside the Engineer and Owner as a consolidated and responsible project team during demonstrations of safety compliance in order to gain approval from the local Civil Defence Authority. This meant, ultimately, the Owner, the Engineer and Contractors stood side by side to obtain licence and approval to operate. There’s no reason why this process could not be brought in for other areas of our built environment. It will drive better practice through greater transparency.

It’s a positive ambition. However, if the Bill continues in its current form, then this aspiration counts for nought and we’ll just create the loopholes through which poor practice can flourish.