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Fire – taking the risk

Author : Tim Fryer

31 July 2012

Tackling a fire risk assessment can be fraught with risk if you are the ‘competent person’ as many FMs are. Tim Fryer asks if fire safety is something FMs could do with better guidance on

The big change came with streamlined fire legislation in 2005 which, at the request of industry, took away the overly prescriptive nature of the previous legislation. But this clearly is a double-edged sword for those

Gary Neville, Principal Fire Safety Officer at consultants Lawrence Webster Forrest commented: “I think the problem is that if you make something prescriptive then you have got no room to make something different. ADB {Approved Document B] is intentionally functional so that it allows interpretation by the user so it allows buildings to be different. Obviously the introduction of risk assessment has introduced another opportunity for misinterpretation of non-compliances and the introduction of somebody’s subjective view on things. I think for simple buildings ADB is fine and I think the risk assessment guidance for simple buildings is fine. It is when you have slightly more complex buildings that ADB and risk assessments become difficult to use. It becomes very subjective.”

ADP is part of the Building Regulations 2000 and deals with fire safety requirements for building work.

For some people it has come full circle as Colin Bassnett, Principal Fire safety Advisor for Metro SRM, pointed out: ”There are prescriptive codes but they are few and far between and you can bend them all. Now people want to be told what to do. They still have a very prescriptive system in places like France and America and they still complain about it there. We can do things creatively. As long as you achieve the same end goal – and can prove it – you can do things in a different way, but it means you need to have a good understanding of fire safety to do this. You have to have a much broader understanding.”

But is it reasonable to expect such a level of understanding from facility managers – and are FMs up to the task? “That actually varies and it varies on a building by building basis,” believes Neville. “In some cases the FMs are on the ball, they have all the records and I can start firing questions at them straight away. Others are a bit bogged down with it and have to start routing around in paperwork to find out what’s happening. Some FMs are competent enough to do risk assessments themselves and if they have a simple enough building they probably have enough time to do them. But then there are others who don’t understand the full remit or the requirements of legislation.”

“What governments did not want to do [with regard to new fire regulations] was create a consultants charter,” claimed Basnett. “So when they bought them in the logic was ‘you can do this for yourself – its not rocket science’, and I think that this probably is true for a small premises. Where it starts not to be clear is when your premises do not meet the descriptions set out – different number of floors, or escape routes or layout.

“Now a number of people have been prosecuted for not being competent to do the risk assessments. So the law is saying that you don’t have to be a bona-fide fire specialist, but when it comes to prosecution it is saying that you need to be a lot better than you are. The case laws that are coming through contradict the base line idea of the legislation when it was first bought out. No Government will say that it wants all responsible persons to be fully accredited, but the law is kind of pointing that way and it is difficult to get round it.”

Given the conflicting messages and lack of definitive guidance, I asked Bassnett if he considered the system to be shambolic? “I wouldn’t go that far,” he commented. “I think what we have got to remember is that while it has been out for six or seven years now we are still feeling our way now unlike health and safety. In H&S law there isn’t a clear mandate for competency - there is in fire safety law. There seems to be a dilemma. It is saying that you need to be competent, but what the Government seems to be very reluctant to do is to introduce a requirement. A bit like electricians were 10 years ago – it was only after a lot of pressure that the Government bought in the Part P requirement. I think that is where we are with fire safety – we are still developing. Everything is based on case law.

“I think if you asked a fully qualified fire consultant if it is shambolic I think they would say no, we understand what needs to be done. But could it be clearer – yes. It would be very helpful if the Government would say you have to have a minimum set of qualifications to do this stuff. There are quite frankly incompetent people doing risk assessments partly because they don’t understand the scope of what they are dealing with and partly because they don’t understand they could go to prison. We get to this when the responsible person says ‘how much?’ – you wouldn’t buy any other service like that. If you buy a cheap and nasty risk assessment you get cheap and nasty results. They look at risk assessment as ticking the box. We go back next year and find that not one of the actions has been acted upon because they haven’t even read it. They thinking owning the assessment is enough, but its not. It is the beginning of their duty, not the end of it.”

Neville concluded: “Some FMs are very good, with others maybe fire has dropped down their list of priorities when it shouldn’t.”

However, with the (already subjective) legislation evolving and being defined by case law it is not the easiest discipline for FMs to keep on top of, not least because the whole concept of risk a subjective one.

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