Hannah Mansell, from the Masonite group of companies in the UK, outlines findings from research into how the public sector approaches fire safety and the biggest challenges facing organisations looking to safeguard resident wellbeing in high-rise buildings
In 2017, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government – now the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities – launched the Building Safety Programme to bolster the health and safety of residents in higher risk residential buildings in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire.
Five years on from the programme’s formation, Door-Stop International partnered with Surveys in Public Sector to understand the extent to which the public sector’s approach to fire safety has evolved during this time. We wanted to find out if changing legislation had helped or hindered their collective efforts; what they saw as the barriers to implementing fire safety; and if housing associations and local authorities were taking fire safety and compliance as seriously as they should be.
Understanding the current landscape
We asked stakeholders how aware they were of the programme and the (then) proposed building reforms. Worryingly, just over one-quarter had little or no awareness, despite the well-publicised journey of the Building Safety Bill.
While the Building Safety Act received Royal Assent in April 2022, a time period of around 18 months was planned when it came to implementation. With this in mind, we asked stakeholders if their organisation would wait for the proposals to be enforced or if they would refurbish their high-rise buildings in advance of a potential deadline. In total, 45% of respondents said that upgrades were already underway, while 31% claimed to be in the process of building a strategy to address these issues. Only 6% said they would wait for the mandate, which suggests that most of the public sector was taking a proactive approach.
We’re moving in a positive direction but, at the time of the survey, only 14% of respondents felt confident that their housing stock was fully compliant, and 1% admitted they were ‘just beginning to address fire safety’.
The majority of people said their organisation was ‘actively addressing fire safety’. The most common method utilised was regular fire risk assessments. Modernisation and refurbishment projects, maintaining basic compliance with available resources, and reacting to resident feedback all ranked highly too. A number of other methods were highlighted including: resident engagement; evacuation systems; sprinkler systems; and dedicated fire safety and compliance teams.
The barriers to compliance
The top three challenges when managing fire safety and compliance were identified as maintaining compliance in-step with changing legislation, followed by the skills gap around fire safety and prohibitive retrofit cost.
When it comes to decision making, more than three quarters of respondents felt confident that the legislation had not hindered them. Of those that felt it had, they attributed this to not having the skillset to make decisions, no one wanting to take responsibility and not being able to acquire the relevant insurance to make decisions.
While encouraging that most respondents felt confident, we must also recognise that legislative changes must be easy to understand and must be accessible. Failure to do so may place organisations at risk of falling behind. The ramifications for residents could be very serious indeed.
Where do we go from here?
Achieving life safety is crucial, particularly in light of the wider challenges for those managing large housing stocks, such as different risk profiles, annual budgets and long-range spending plans. When it comes to fire safety, it is important to take a holistic, long-term view. It will never be ‘done’ – it is something that needs continuous monitoring, to be responsive and the strategy adjusted accordingly.
Our research highlights the need to ensure that all stakeholders involved in fire safety are competent. The lack of skills and knowledge is not only a barrier to getting things done in the first place, but to ensuring that when works get underway, they are compliant.
To read the full report, visit: www.masonite.co.uk/firedoorsets/learnmore
Resident engagement in high rise residential buildings is a legal requirement but makes sense in all kinds of social housing
It is good practice to give residents as much information as possible, including but not limited to: how a fire door system works (by identifying the different components); the purpose of fire doors; what their fire door should look like and how it should operate on a daily basis; that the traceability label or plug should be located on the door; potential issues with a fire door that are a result of both wear and tear, and vandalism; and that the door closers should not be disabled, no additional ironmongery added, and that fire doors should not be wedged or propped open.
Hannah Mansell is group technical director for Masonite group of companies in the UK