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Fingers Burnt?

23 October 2007

A fatal fire at Penhallow Hotel, Newquay in 2007

The RRO streamlined a mountain of fire safety legislation and placed responsibility for undertaking fire risk assessments on the ‘responsible person’ for each property. One year on, the changes are having an impact but many gaps remain.

AS THE FATAL FIRE AT THE PEHHALLOW HOTEL in Newquay last August (pictured below) reminded us, fire is an ever-present threat that can cause human tragedy and destroy a business in a matter of minutes.

Understandably this has always been a high priority for Government and one which has been the subject of extensive regulation in British workplaces over the years. In fact including the landmark Fire Precautions (Workplace) Regulations 1997 that were introduced a decade ago, no fewer than 132 different sets of rules have been introduced to help reduce fire risks in various non-domestic premises.

At the heart of this system was the Fire Certificate which all workplaces employing 20 or more people had to secure from the local Fire Service each year to confirm that they complied with the law as it related to them. The new Reform Order marked a fundamental change in approach. It took the core responsibility for assessing the risks away from the fire service and placed it firmly upon the shoulders of the ‘responsible person’ of each site.

In addition it widened the net to oblige those in charge of all non-domestic premises - not just those with over 20 staff – to arrange a Fire Risk Assessment and produce an action plan to manage the identified risks. Premises and facilities managers, as the people responsible for overseeing properties and associated services on a day-to-day basis, are very often cast in this role of ‘responsible person’ and are therefore the ones frequently required to ensure compliance with the new regulations.

While the Fire Service can still give some guidance to help firms meet statutory demands, they will not carry out the risk assessment or verify its adequacy through a Fire Certificate. Their role has now altered to one of inspecting and enforcing the rules. If they deem your fire risk assessment is inadequate, they may take enforcement action.

While many organisations have worked competently with fire authorities to satisfy the new regulations, there are indications that significant numbers – particularly those not previously covered by fire certificates – are still unaware of their new obligations or, in some cases, are choosing to ignore them. In a bid to increase awareness and help people discharge their duties, the Government undertook a £2m publicity campaign to coincide with the Reform Order and published 13 guide books, of which 11 were sector-specific.

Own responsibility
Trevor Dean, Operations Manager (Fire Safety) with National Britannia and a former Senior Officer with London Fire Brigade, says that thousands of smaller employers are among those who remain ignorant of the new rules. He said: “Those who previously needed Fire Certificates will have been alerted by the fact that the fire officers would no longer lead them by the hand around their building identifying all of the actions that were needed’ but are being told it is their own responsibility to ensure compliance. Many thousands of smaller premises, previously exempt from the Fire Certificates are now obliged to have a Fire Risk Assessment carried out by a competent person and create an action plan to manage the risks effectively.”

The question arises as to who is ‘competent’ to undertake the risk assessment and draw up the action plan. As Dean explains, the new regulations do not demand that the ‘competent person’ has a formal qualification. However, he said, the skills and qualifications needed will vary according to the level of risk presented by each premises.

He said, “All employees in a supervisory role should be given details of the Fire Risk Assessment and receive additional training where necessary to ensure that they are competent to the required level. In certain cases where the risk is low, a member of staff with the correct training will be able to follow
Government guidelines to put together an action plan. On the other hand, certain premises present a high ‘life risk and in these cases external professional support is strongly recommended. These include premises such as care homes, hostels, hotels, hospitals or sometimes apartment blocks and student residences.”

Initially an audit must be undertaken to inspect the existing fire safety arrangements. This will pinpoint the fire hazards, evaluate the risk of a fire starting on the premises and identify those at most risk, whether employees, customers, guests, tenants, patients or the wider public.

“Responsible persons should look critically at the premises and identify the obvious and not so obvious risks,” Dean added. Following an initial assessment, an action plan must be formulated and implemented to manage the risk effectively.

Despite some criticisms about the new Order, Dean considers that the rules are helping to create a new attitude and culture about fire risk. “Many people are realising they can no longer hide behind a fire certificate and must ensure their assessment is adequate,” he argues.

He explained how the fire service have been undertaking an extensive round of enforcement visits and have indicated that they won’t hesitate to prosecute those who fail to come up to scratch. Inspectors have been focusing heavily on premises where a high ‘life-risk’ is present such as those facilities offering sleeping accommodation or buildings housing elderly or infirm people. In addition there have been a growing number of visits to multiple occupancy buildings such as apartment blocks or student accommodation where the common areas now fall within the scope of fire regulations.

Whereas previously perhaps only common areas may have been classified as potential workplaces – for example, the caretaker’s office – and come under the scope of previous fire safety regulations, now all common areas must be fire risk assessed. In many cases firms and organisations failing to comply will be issued with advisory letters but, if this doesn’t achieve its aim, improvement notices and prosecution are likely to follow.

The new rules allow for fines of up to £5,000 per offence at Magistrate’s Court or up to two years imprisonment with unlimited fines at Crown Court.

● Trevor Dean is Operations Manager (Fire Safety) for National Britannia, the UK’s largest independent safety, health and environmental risk management specialists. He is a former divisional officer grade one with the London Fire Brigade.

Link: National Britannia

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