Is the Fire Service the Right Enforcement Authority?

I’ve heard this question many times during my career.

In 1986 I wrote an article in Fire Surveyor entitled Fire Legislation – Is the Fire Service the Right Enforcement Authority?

Expecting the article to be controversial I was pleasantly surprised at the level of support it attracted from many eminent people in the profession, including a retired HM Inspector of Fire Services who wrote: “I think that Mr Cox was not only correct but courageous to voice his reservations about the suitability of the present-day fire service to perform these duties.

“The faults which have developed appear in many respects to be consequences of the complex task which the service has been required to do and the unsuitable means with which they have been provided to do it.

“With the will to acknowledge the need for change it should be possible to ensure that the question asked by Mr Cox is not raised seriously again. We will then owe him more than a word of gratitude?”

Unfortunately, I now find myself in a position where I have to raise the question again.

Fire door held open

Fire door held open

Disturbing experience

A few weeks ago I stayed in a hotel in the North of England.

While the stay was quite enjoyable my initial inspection of escape routes revealed some disturbing problems: fire doors that wouldn’t close, that were wedged open, left open and poorly upgraded together with a poorly protected external fire escape, out-of-date PAT and extinguisher testing and poor electrical wiring, to name a few.

As I could see that some upgrading work was in progress I decided to discuss the problems with the owners, who indicated that they had purchased the property about 12 months ago and that the local fire officer had entered the building as part of the due diligence process.

Regarding the wedged-open fire doors the proprietors thought that the easiest option was to remove the ‘Fire Door – Keep Shut’ signs, which I strongly advised against.

On my return home I sent the owners a list of identified problems together with photographs but didn’t receive acknowledgement – let alone reply.

I sent a copy of my 11-page report to the fire service, which acknowledged receipt saying: “Thank you for your communication regarding the above premises. The Fire & Rescue Service takes all concerns for fire safety seriously. The matter you raised in your letter of 11th July 2014 will be investigated and appropriate action taken.”

Feeling this wasn’t a very professional reply for a fairly comprehensive report I wrote back asking if they considered the building up to RRO standards. They replied: “If you require any further information or documentation this will be dealt with by Headquarters through a freedom of information request.”

Fire door held open by Gong

Fire door held open by gong

Clearly this report came from someone who understood fire safety and was not simply a list of unfounded allegations. I believe that any reasonable complaint deserves an explanation as to whether or not the comments are justified and what action will be taken.

If you purchased a faulty product you would not expect Trading Standards to simply promise investigation without informing you of the outcome, whether you submit a Freedom of Information request or not. So why should booking a hotel be any different?

Might the fire service’s involvement in enforcement procedure make them nervous about incriminating their service? Because if they agreed with my findings they may find it difficult to explain the problems I had identified?

A look at the National Enforcement Register reveals that the fire service inspected the premises in December 2012 and issued an enforcement notice (EN) that should have covered many items I identified. So was the EN correctly complied with and was it correct?

From my observations some items appeared to have met the standard implemented under the previous legislation.

Unprotected glazing to external fire escape

Unprotected glazing to external fire escape

Not all fire services handle complaints in this way and some produce professional responses, but the vast majority appears to adopt this “no comment attitude”, which will discourage complaints and in my view is unprofessional and impedes progress in fire safety. Perhaps the fire services would like to explain why they take this action?

Find out how fire authorities dealt with my comments on other hotels.


Much has been written recently about this subject in relation to persons involved in assessing buildings for fire safety. But what about assessors employed by the fire services – are they competent, and if so, how do we know they meet the expected standard?

Do we know what the expected standard is? Do we know how it is monitored and assessed or do we just take it for granted that because they are employed by a fire authority, they must be competent?

If we accept this statement are we simply not burying our heads in the sand and just pursuing easy targets? Or should we not have a more open, honest and transparent fire service willing to be part of the overall solution rather than part of the problem?

Many problems identified in my original article are still apparent in buildings I look at today and clearly meet standards accepted under previous legislation. In many cases owners show me their old fire certificate and inform me that nothing has changed and as it was it issued by the Fire Authority it must be right – which actually isn’t always the case.

It’s also difficult to inform someone that standards that were applicable some years ago are not acceptable today, regardless of what the fire certificate states.

So it is more difficult if an independent assessor tries to get something improved if the fire authority has recently visited and said nothing to the contrary. Some assessors are also unable to identify problems with old fire certificates and simply assume that if nothing has changed, it must be OK.

Storage in staircase

Storage in staircase

Fire investigation

Anyone who has read my article on the Penhallow Hotel Fire

will know that one of the questions I raised was: “Should fire services be responsible for investigating fatal fires where they have been responsible for enforcement? In my opinion, it is now time to move forward to a system where in these circumstances the investigation is carried out by an independent body.”

Cornwall Fire and Rescue Service responded as follows: “Whilst in principle the point raised by Mr Cox may be worthy of debate, we do not believe in the case of the Penhallow Hotel there were any conflicts of interest, as the hotel had not been subjected to audit under the legislation for which the company were subsequently prosecuted.”

I certainly agree that the subject is worthy of debate but I do not accept that there was no conflict of interest. And if anyone has seen the official report I think they’ll see how many questions remain unanswered.

Fire extinguisher needs servicing

Fire extinguisher needs servicing

I have no problem with the fire services investigating small fires where there has been no loss of life or serious casualties, but can it be right that the fire service investigate serious incidents where they have inspected and agreed the standard of fire safety?

This did not work in the police service and does not work in the fire service. To improve the situation I think we need an independent organisation similar to the IPCC (Independent Police Complaints Commission) to oversee the situation and make it more open, honest and transparent.

Need for a Fire Engineering Inspectorate

In response to my article an eminent fire consultant wrote an interesting piece entitled The Need for a Fire Engineering Inspectorate. It was pointed out that the principal requirements of the legislation were:

The fire consultant also mentioned that three of these four requirements involve mechanical or electrical engineering and that fireman are not engineers.

“The logic of requiring firefighters to enforce fire safety legislation, taken to its ultimate, implies that security systems should be commissioned by policemen, that first aiders and ambulance men should enforce the Health and Safety at Work Act etc, because they have seen lots of blood and that car braking and steering systems should be designed or tested by motorway policemen with ample accident experience.

“Surely the fire service should open its mind a little more to the role of engineers if it is to maintain credibility in today’s world,” he concluded. “The skilled fire fighter and engineer can work in liaison to contribute to each other’s knowledge so that the public may experience the greatest benefit.

“The fire service should not be afraid to relinquish, if required, certain roles merely because they have tradionally lain within the scope of the service. A master of one skill is admired much more than a poor man’s jack of all trades.”


Thirty years on from my initial article and the legislation has changed together with responsibility for fire safety, but the UK still appears to suffer from many of the same problems – so have we moved forward?

Clearly, some things have changed and in theory, putting the responsibility on the owner/occupier is a good thing – but does this work in practice? In some companies and organisations it does, but not, I believe, in the vast majority.

This comes down to how well the legislation is enforced and compliance is assessed. Together with how serious life-loss fires are investigated, this must be completely reassessed if we’re to reach a cost-effective, open and transparent level of fire safety.

I concluded my original article with the following statement, which I still feel merits consideration: “It is a little pointless improving the medicine if the doctor is not well trained and able to identify the illness. Perhaps now is the time to look at the alternative method of enforcement”.


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Alan Cox
Alan Cox


If you look at the Fire Research Station's Report of their investigation of the fire - the objectives of the investigation were to investigate the following:

1. The ignition of the rubbish

2. The growth of fire in the concealed space beneath the timbers

3. the spread of flames from the fire beneath the timbers to a growing fire above the timbers

4. The spread of smoke and flames to and subsequently beneath the roof with heat radiation back to combustibles at floor level

5. The effects of the fire on the people in the grandstand

6. The possible mitigating actions.

There were in fact Technical Assessments by the FRS on all of these items together with tests/experiments that were used to verify the possible ignition sequence. It is interesting to note that the experiments showed that only certain types of cellulose based materials were susceptible to smouldering from cigarettes, mainly synthetic materials. For smouldering there had to be good contact between a lighted cigarette and the material and in a draught may undergo a transition to flaming after a significant delay.

In the concluding remarks the report states " Overall the assessments show that the mechanism of the Bradford fire is very complicated and involves a number of intermediate steps of fire development".

Dave Sibert
Dave Sibert

I have also read the Martin Fletcher book.

I wasn’t convinced by the questions he raised about the BRE’s investigation though.The cursory and inconclusive fire investigation into Bradford City was compared unfavourably with the costly 1/3 scale reconstructions of the Stardust Disco fire and the Kings Cross fire.But the Stardust Disco and the King’s Cross reconstructions were intended to investigate fire spread, not ignition.At Bradford, there was no question about the reasons for the fire spread, it was the cause of ignition that was in question.Smouldering depends on so many factors that it is just about impossible to replicate in a laboratory so no amount on investigation would have proved or disproved anything.

Other than that, the book is very well written and deeply moving.It brings home the personal impact of a fire tragedy.I also recommend it highly.

Alan Cox
Alan Cox

I have just finished reading 56 The Story of the Bradford Fire by Martin Fletcher which I would recommend to anyone interested in fire safety and have to say I think that the investigation carried out by Martin together with his experience of the fire is amazing.

You will note that I referred to the fire in my original article and Martin's book clearly illustrates the problems that we face with both enforcement and investigation.

Alan Cox
Alan Cox


Changing the legislation was supposed to get rid of "tombstone legislation" as you refer to and by involving the owners make it more inclusive as well as fitting in with other safety legislation and European requirements but I don't really think that this has worked in the UK in respect of fire safety. What I think is interesting is that it has worked in some countries such as Germany, so what does that tell us? Obviously, that the principle can work, but in needs better enforcement.

I have just returned from a weekend break in a hotel and guess what the level of fire safety was dreadful - these are a few of the problems in this 16th century inn:

1. Some fire doors held open with Dorguard units (the ones that release the door on the sound from the fire alarm) unfortunately, they had put the Dorguard Notices on the door but forgotten to fit the units and so had used the cheap "door wedge" units - the ones that don't release when the fire alarm sounds.

2. The external fire escape was badly corroded and not protected at all levels with fire resisting glazing - one window was open so it would not have made a great deal of difference.

3. It is doubtful if some of the fire doors would have achieved a 10 minute rating let alone 30.

4. Keys in a glass fronted box where in evidence on escape routes that pass through bedrooms and toilets.

These problems are typical of those that I observe in hotels that I stay in and I know that this is not unusual in the UK with around 85% of hotels that I visit having serious problems - is this really the way that fire safety should go?

I do agree that fire safety can only be effective if there are competent persons available with the tools to do the job but would add that there also has to be the will to get it done and give the public the fire safety standard that they deserve.


@Alan Cox 

If you wish to give the public the fire standard they deserve, then you have a duty of care to report the hotel to the appropriate authority and expect feedback.

We are at this time, like all other industry, dependant on  "whistle blowers" to force standards that are allegedly required by legislation and only complied with by a few.

Alan Cox
Alan Cox

@5tuart @Alan Cox

I was intending to report these problems but I do not expect any feedback because there are only a very few FRS that do so. I do find this attitude quite poor when you consider that we are all trying to achieve the same results and as you quite rightly point out "I have a duty of care to report the hotel."

I usually have to serve a FOI notice to get any response and even then a lot of FRS just quote that they informed the RP to comply with the RRO as required - which is of very little help. One of the other questions that I usually ask is "when was the last time that you visited the premises and did you make any observations?" - I know that this is one that they are not very keen to answer especially if they have visited recently because quite clearly many of these problems will have been there for years - some from when the building had a Fire Certificate as is probably the case at this hotel.

Obviously, this gives the FRS a problem because they can probably anticipate that I am going to ask some very difficult questions if they inform me that they visited recently and it was ok. If this happens I normally get a phone call because they don't really want to commit there answers to paper but I ask them to and the reply is usually very brief and says very little.

The other problem that the FRS faces in this situation is that if they have visited recently and made no comments how do they go back and tell the RP that the situation has changed because they have had a complaint from a member of the public and they now need to spend a lot more money?

This situation does not help the public so I find that I then have to post a review on the web with photographs so that anyone considering booking that establishment knows beforehand that these are the problems and that if they are concerned they need to ask at the time of booking if these problems have been rectified. This is not my preferred course of action because I know that it can lose that establishment business but as you point "I have a duty of care" and I feel that people should know about these things beforehand.

Alan Cox
Alan Cox

@5tuart @Alan Cox


This is the FOI request that I received in respect of the hotel in my article:

"With reference to your Freedom of Information request received 25th July 2014 where you asked for several pieces of information, please see the answers below:

“On the 10th July I sent you a copy of a report that I had made in relation to Fire Safety at ................... following my stay there.”

Q1.  “I require to know what action that you took in relation to my report”

A1.  Following receipt of your report the following took place:

11th July 2014 – The complaint was logged

14th July 2014 – A response was sent to yourself

17th July 2014 – An Audit of the premises was carried out

18th July 2014 – A letter was sent to the premises detailing the results of the audit.

Q2. “When you last carried out a Fire Safety Inspection prior to my report of this building and what was the result”

A2.  We last carried out an inspection of the premises on the 7th January 2013.  The result was Satisfactory.

Should you require any further information please do not hesitate to contact me on .......

If you are in any way unhappy with the service you have received in relation to your request and wish to make a complaint, please contact The Complaints Officer at .......... Our complaints procedure is available on our website at ........... If you are still not satisfied following this, you can make an appeal to the Information Commissioner, who is the statutory regulator. The Information Commissioner can be contacted at: 

This is typical a response that tells you nothing at all - so I don't know if my complaint was justified, if the hotel has put these things right, what the state of fire safety was when the FRS inspected it or if the hotel is now safe. You have indicated that you are dependant on "whistle blowers" but I hope that you can now see why this type of response does not encourage people to bother.

Obviously, I know that there is a very good chance that many of these problems were probably there when the FRS inspected the building in January 2013 and so I have to draw my own conclusions why we find ourself in this situation.


Enforcement for fire safety under the current regulations was originally a two horse race between the Health and Safety Executive and Fire Authority, with the Fire Authority winning the race.

What we have now is a Fire Authority strapped for cash trying to make cuts in the hope they do not go over there budget, enforcing fire safety standards can only be effective where there are competent persons available with the tools to do the job.

I see below a few raw nerves have been touched and they are fire service personnel no doubt defending what they feel so passionately about and rightly so.

Would another such body make a difference? I doubt it as the current trend of penalties for offenders do not reflect the offence, fire safety legislation is historically about "tombstone legislation" there lies the problem and I personally cannot see it changing as it is not a vote winner.


Fortunately a great deal more evidence than that provided here is required to convince most impartial observers. There is a great deal more to fire safety than a few fire doors here and there that might not close perfectly or because the telephone does not have 999 written on it (See Mr Cox's report on other hotels).

It is fortunate that Fire Authorities do not demonstrate the level of pedantry demonstrated here lest they be cast of as overly bureacratic and officious regulators. Any large body of individuals will display varying approaches and competence including the body that is fire engineers and consultants. However, I will not dignify Mr Cox's views by drawing similar observations and claiming a need for a huge overhaul in the face of a national fire safety record that is the envy of many.

Alan Cox
Alan Cox


I think that you need to look at the bigger picture because if you look at my reports you will see a lot more than wedged open fire doors and no instructions for dialling 999 - generally, if that was the case I would simply make the comments to the owner or manager and leave it at that. Unfortunately, the ones that I have highlighted are some of the properties that are disregarding fire safety in many areas and not just the areas that you have highlighted. Also you should be aware that in some properties I am not able to photograph all of the problems and therefore you are only seeing part of the picture.

Perhaps you would like to highlight which property you think did not need to be included and I may be able to give you some more information. In my experience I find that those premises that manage fire safety properly only have a couple of items that they need to pay attention to but it is the ones that ignore fire safety in general that need to improve across the board. 

I am sorry if you feel that I am being pedantic but that was part of my training in the FRS but obviously things have changed.

Dave Sibert
Dave Sibert

I hear your argument about putting out fires doesn’t make you a good enforcement officer.  But services don’t just rely on firefighting experience when they appoint enforcement officers.  The ‘firefighters’ who enforce fire safety legislation these days come from three groups;

(1) those who have been transferred from fire fighting duties into enforcement duties (a.k.a. “grey book staff”);

(2) people who are employed directly ‘off the street’ as enforcement officers and (a.k.a. “green book staff”);

(3) retired “grey book” enforcement officers re-employed on “green book” contracts.

There aren’t enough of these people, and in some services their training is questionable, they have no externally recognised qualifications and they are not regularly assessed.  But on the whole, they are a professional core of people, dedicated to the enforcement of fire safety.  If they aren’t the best people to enforce fire safety legislation, then who?  Who would do it any better?  Any other organisation would still employ human beings just the same.

There are many excellent fire safety enforcement officers out there in fire and rescue services.  There are fire and rescue services that train and regularly assess the quality of their enforcement officers (and officers from those services will post replies to articles such as this to explain how committed they are to quality).  But there are also services who do not invest in their fire safety enforcement staff and even the best services have significantly cut the number of enforcement posts over the years.

Why would any other organisation be any different?  It would employ mostly good, but a few bad, people.  And if it was publicly funded, it would be under resourced and find it difficult to employ and train enough people to do a high quality job.  What would be the benefit of that when compared to leaving it with the fire and rescue service?

Alan Cox
Alan Cox

@Dave Sibert


That was not my argument -  it was in an article about the Need for a Fire Engineering Inspectorate which was published after my item.

One of the proposals put forward in the article was as follows, " There is a high technical ability, in for instance, the Health and Safety Executive which, in an extended form, could surely undertake the role of policing fire safety standards, as has been suggested. This at first seems a radical proposal but all of us in the fire world, myself included, can too easily forget that fire safety is only one of many risks to which workers are exposed. The knowledge required in the field of health and safety is, in any case, arguably greater than that required for fire safety.

Rationalisation of safety enforcement in this way could go hand in hand with the concept of self certification.

Remember that this was written nearly 30 years ago and by coincidence it is part of a proposal that I am putting forward to the EC in response to the Green Paper about Improving Tourism Accommodation in Europe.

I take your point about under funding and this is certainly something that I have witnessed over the years but it is only if we bring the subject into the open and have an open and honest debate about it that it will change. I also take your point about the lack of good enforcement officers, which again, is evident to me.


I have to disagree with Mr Cox's comments regarding the reply he received from the local fire authority. I believe that the reply he received was of consumate professionalism and he has to remember that the organisation are the enforcing agency and to discuss any findings they have as an organisation, would be unprofessional as they have a responsibility of confidentiality to the organisations they have carried out inspections; upon. The Fire Authority were right in their further reply and asking Mr Cox to submit a freedom of information request to their HQ. Depending on the contents of any information held will also have an effect on whether the Fire Authority will supply such information, as once again, the Fire Authority have a responsibility of confidentiality. If the findings of Mr Cox's report is borne out through an inspection by that Fire Authority and goes beyond Fire Safety Deficiencies to enforcement action being taken, then quite rightly, the Fire Authority would be within their rights to deny Mr Cox access to such information. The reason would probably be that an investigation is potentially underway and they may be considering prosecution. 

Alan Cox
Alan Cox

@Sunnyguy365 If this is true - why don't all FRS act the same way? Some FRS don't even bother to acknowledge receipt and the reply that I received from one FRS after 2 reminders stated "I have passed your email on to a member of our Fire Protection Team hopefully someone will make contact with you soon." 

Do you consider this very professional where someone states "hopefully" - because I have not heard anything yet.


Alan, I cannot answer for other FRS, I can only reply to you using my own professional and moral compass. If I were to receive a report on my desk that was eleven pages long then I would most definitely reply and if I had a telephone number as well, I would definitely call that person with the intention of having a preliminary conversation prior to carrying out an inspection, as the report for all intent and purpose(on reflection), is tantamount to a complaint and I have a professional responsibility to respond to such.

Alan Cox
Alan Cox


Thanks for your comment which is exactly what I would have expected and done myself - sadly some FRS cannot be bothered which is a great pity.


I've noticed that 'freedom of information' requests are often made by semi-retired people or journalists who see their enquiry as more important than the recipient's day-to-day work.

Alan Cox
Alan Cox


I am not sure what point that your making here - is it that you feel that the FOI is something that wastes the recipients time and is therefore a waste of time? And I cannot see what relevance there is in identifying journalists and semi retired people - perhaps you could explain your comments in a little more detail.

I certainly work a lot with journalists and this is a valuable tool for them as it is for me and I would prefer not to have to use it but unfortunately many organisations like the FRS are not very helpful.

For your information I am semi retired but give my time free of charge to help improve fire safety for everyone - am I wasting my time also? 

Alan Cox
Alan Cox


It is interesting to note that one aspect of your comments about firefighters being the best people to enforce fire legislation was the subject of a fire consultant's reply to my original article. I quote "I am amazed that the old argument that one needs to have inhaled smoke to understand fire behaviour should still be trotted out.  The logic of requiring fire fighters to enforce fire safety legislation, taken to its ultimate, implies that security systems should be commissioned by policeman, that first aiders and ambulance men should enforce the Health and Safety at Work Act because they have seen lots of blood and that car braking systems should be designed or tested by motorway policemen with ample accident experience."

Simon Ince
Simon Ince

The FRS is indeed the best organisation to enforce the fire safety order, as they are the people who deal with the aftermath of fire. If fighting fires and taking out dead bodies doesn’t focus your mind on fire safety nothing will. However, as has been said below; resource, training and funding have all been slashed over many years which has the knock on effect mentioned by others. The shift in enforcement now is well established to a softly, softly education and advice role with only the worst of the worst offenders facing prosecution, as the force cannot afford to go legal and fear a court room loss which has financial implications. Using operational crews as intelligence and by focusing on high risk they are just about keeping fire safety in check. However as we all know the potential for fire death and fire loss is still rife here in the UK, the only good thing is that fires are quite rare, therefore poor fire safety isn’t tested very often. Even when it is tested most times people do get out, as we all have a strong survival instinct.

Having said that the potential for multi fatalities in a fire is what needs to be tackled and those who are put at danger unknowingly are not expendables in the grand scale of things. They have families and friends they have a right not to be put at risk at work, or on holiday, or when they are receiving medical care or on a night out having a beer or two.  No one should be paying to be put at danger and no one should be working in an unsafe environment.

What is the answer?  Well it depends on the real question.  Could anyone else enforce better given the same budget? Is the level of enforcement putting lives at risk? Could industry do more to help the FRS? Should government do more to inform RPs about fire safety? Should the powers of enforcers be changed? 

Dave Sibert
Dave Sibert

I don’t think it is the case that self assessment has failed (RichardBaker1).  I agree with Fireofficer1 that employees of fire and rescue services are the best people to enforce fire safety legislation, but they are not being invested in properly.  There is no career path in fire safety enforcement in many services (so there is a lack of motivation for personal development in the subject) and training is patchy to say the least.

Self assessment would work fine if there were many more of the exceptional enforcement officers that Fireofficer1 mentioned who could examine self assessments and help responsible people to get them right.  But sadly, thanks to under investment in staff and training, there aren’t enough exceptional enforcement officers.

We could get rid of self assessment and return to the Fire Precautions Act tomorrow, but without an adequate number of well qualified, motivated enforcement officers, why would people comply with it?  Would they really take any more notice of a fire certificate than they do of their current obligation to carry out and implement a fire risk assessment if there was little or no chance of them being caught?

But going back to the point of Mr Cox’s article, if there is a fatal fire tonight in the night club described below by Activatefire, do we think (assuming we take his description of the circumstances at face value) that the local fire and rescue service would be sufficiently remote from blame to carry out a truly independent fire investigation?

I believe that the vast majority of fire officers have the integrity to produce an honest ‘warts and all’ fire investigation, but would everyone believe it?  Mr Cox’s point is that it isn’t good enough to be beyond reproach these days, public bodies have to be SEEN to be so far beyond reproach that it is clearly impossible for them to reproach even if they wanted to!  And if there was any doubt, who would you make a complaint to?


I am going to keep this as brief as possible. I work in the fire safety industry and recently visited a licensed bar which is in a listed building it is on the second floor has a single direction means of escape via a stone spiral staircase, in my experience this just does not work!!!! On speaking to the owner I was told the Fire Service had ok'd it and that they had suggested a maximum occupation of 120-130. 

I spoke to the enforcing officer who had dealt with the premises and was told that the high levels of detection in the building and the fact that it was not the kind of licensed premise where people get drunk (it has a 1am licence!!!) compensated for any deficiencies in the building. He did also say that due to the fact that I was a fire safety professional he would take my concerns seriously?? He said that he would request that his line Manager looked at the premise. A few days later he came back to me an said that on revisiting the premise they were happy it was safe.

I could go into much more detail about this particular premise (there are other issues), but basically I cannot make it fit any guidance so cannot understand how they can substantiate there decision. I am just totally at a loss because if the enforcers are not enforcing what chance do we stand??


Their comments were verbal only and I was not really comfortable with this. I have asked a colleague to visit the premises to get his take on it because I do not feel I can just accept this, my thoughts were that if he is of the same opinion then I would make my concerns more formal.

Alan Cox
Alan Cox


An interesting example and from what you have described I would be concerned about the situation. Could I ask if the FRS replied to your concerns verbally or in writing? One of the problems that I raised on the BBC Inside Out Investigation into the Penhallow Hotel Fire was that they relied on verbal comments too much without confirming these in writing - interesting that they have now changed this procedure.

Perhaps, if you don't have it in writing you should request it - I find that they are very reluctant to confirm these situations in writing because they realise what might happen in the event of a serious fire.

Thanks for bringing this to our attention and it certainly is similar to some of the situations that I find.

Alan Cox
Alan Cox

I am pleased that you are prepared to go to these lengths because of your concern. If more people were prepared to put pen to paper and bring these things out into the open we would all have a better understanding of the problems that are facing us all. Well done.


  There are obvious problems with the fire service as an enforcement authority most of which could be easily and simply addressed if they were openly exposed from the inside and there was a willingness to address them but unfortunately from my experience this is not currently the case.  As a current enforcement officer with a range of experience I would be the first to admit that  firefighters are not engineers and nor do they all have the capacity to become so.  However, this level of training is not always required and there are in fact some exceptional enforcement officers with high level qualifications - I do not think it is fair to tarnish us all as a single group when more strategic issues exist over which we have no influence.  It should also be noted that the Competency Criteria which Steve Skarratt mentions is only guidance with some services choosing to ignore it due to cost implications.  As well as the complaints commission and in some degree in response to Dave Sibert's comment I would ask if there is any lee way in making it compulsory for fire services to ring fence a minimum proportion of their budget for enforcement activities and to take forward prosecutions.  I firmly believe that the employees of fire services across the country are the best people to enforce the Fire Safety Order but the organisations may not be the best option for managing it if the two things can be separated.

Alan Cox
Alan Cox


One aspect that was discussed following my original article was a possibility of using the people with the skills and experience that you have mentioned together with other people in the profession including fire engineers with relevant experience and others with specific skills in the trade. The important thing which you have touched on and was also proposed  at that time was moving the management away from the FRS because this was seen as the "pinch point" for the profession and I think that you have also illustrated this very well.


Sorry to say that the UK is on course for a major loss of life if we do not move away from self assessment - it is NOT working.  Have been in so many properties including fire and police buildings that are appalling fire safety wise. Sorry, but Fire Service fire safety officers are not being taught properly nor in most cases are non service people.  The FSO was a cost saving exercise to get rid of trained fire safety officers in the fire service and self assessment is really a joke, the news keeps pointing out the failures even today with people having to jump from windows in fairly new flats.  We need an urgent review, proper legislation, trained people in what ever guise be it Fire Service or a National Fire Safety Agency but it needs teeth and people.  

Just look at the number of big fires we are having!  If self assessment was that good why can't I test my own car? Let us not let all the fire deaths from years past that have shaped the UK's fire safety legislation which has been the best slip away, it will end in tears.  And for all the people that said that FSO swept away conflicting and out of date legislation please look around you and see the problems.  We now have legislation that the majority are completely unaware of, risk assessors that are not trained and companies offering fire risk assessments nationally for £99 + vat - get real.

Alan Cox
Alan Cox

Thanks for being so open and honest and I certainly agree that the way that fire safety is going at present leaves a lot to be desired. Unfortunately, we appear to be stuck with this system because of Europe and I don't see it changing in the near future.

It is interesting that the system appears to work in some countries in the EU - if you look at countries like Germany you certainly don't see the problems there that you see in the UK and from my discussions with hotel owners there it appears to come down to the enforcement. I am always impressed by the level of fire safety that I see there - even down to the graphic fire safety plans on display in all establishments - you try and find one in many UK establishments even though there is a EU Directive on it.

I think that this shows that the system can work but it needs better enforcement which you highlight in your view and you are quite right "look around and see the problems" which is exactly what I do.

Dave Sibert
Dave Sibert

A very interesting article that covers a wide range of issues – most of which I have a great deal of sympathy with.  I’d like to write a response at least as long to discuss all of the matters raised but I will limit myself to only one or two.

This isn’t a criticism of Mr Cox, but I note in the conclusion that he mentions the popular statement that the Fire Safety Order ‘put the responsibility on the owner/occupier’.

The thing is, virtually every responsibility was always on the owner/occupier.  I don’t remember a fire officer ever being prosecuted for a failure to comply with the Fire Precautions Act!

The only thing that changed with the introduction of the Fire Safety Order was that owner/occupiers (responsible people) now have to work out appropriate fire precautions themselves, instead of being told what to do by the fire service.  Nothing else changed.  

I think that one of the reasons that we have problems today is that so many people said (and keep saying) that the Fire Safety Order has “shifted responsibility to the responsible person”.  Fire services used this as an excuse to massively downsize their fire safety enforcement departments and cut back on training of fire safety officers – the argument being (whether stated in these terms or not); ‘why do we need to throw resources at it when we aren’t responsible for it any more?’  But of course, the only responsibility that the fire and rescue service lost was the responsibility of copying and pasting standard paragraphs into fire certificates.  The introduction of the Fire Safety Order did not really create any slack in fire safety departments that could be cut out without adversely affecting quality.

I would argue that one of the reasons that we have problems in fire safety enforcement at the moment is a lack of investment by fire and rescue services; and that lack of investment was partly encouraged by this distortion of what the Fire Safety Order was all about.

In his article, Mr Cox could also have mentioned the so-called ‘arm’s length companies’ that use fire and rescue service badges on their letter heads and are out there carrying out fire risk assessments and delivering training.  Potential conflict of interest when it comes to enforcement?  Quite clearly.

I have long been an advocate of an Independent Fire and Rescue Service Complaints Commission and it is good to hear I’m not the only one.

Alan Cox
Alan Cox

@Dave Sibert


I never approached the issuing of Fire Certificates as a "copying and pasting standard paragraphs" exercise and I was always aware of the need to be "reasonable in the circumstances of the case "in all my decisions and the members of our section would discuss individual problems as a team in the effort to apply the best solution. Obviously, I am aware that this did happen but not something that I approved of.

I take your point about the shifting of responsibility but when the FRS issued a Fire Certificate that was their legal interpretation of " what was reasonable in the circumstances of the case" and the fact that it was there for all to see in a form that was hard to dispute was a good thing for both the FRS and the owner. This clearly made things easier to enforce because there was very little doubt about what was right and what was wrong and of course if the Fire Certificate was incorrect it was fairly easy to establish where the blame should be placed.

Now we have a system where it is hard to decide what is right and what is wrong and a document that states "You must appoint one or more competent persons, depending on the size and use of your premises, to carry out any preventive and protective measures required by the Order (you can nominate yourself for this purpose). A competent person is someone with enough training and experience or knowledge and other qualities to be able to implement these measures properly." With words like this you can see why any person that has been on a Fire Safety Course may judge themselves to be competent. 

If you look at this fact together with how often the FRS inspect buildings you end with the situation whereby a building with a poorly implemented Fire Risk Assessment can be there for many years without this fact being acknowledged and of course during this period many people may be at great risk. 

I am pleased that you share my views on an independant Fire and Rescue Service Complaints Commission. 

Steve Skarratt
Steve Skarratt

As an organisation that delivers training to both FRS and non FRS in Fire Risk Assessment and Enforcement of the same, we are fortunate to see both sides.

Without wishing to detract from Alan's article, and without showing favour to either perspective, I would like to highlight  that Alan's questions:

"But what about assessors employed by the fire services – are they competent, and if so, how do we know they meet the expected standard?

Do we know what the expected standard is? Do we know how it is monitored and assessed or do we just take it for granted that because they are employed by a fire authority, they must be competent?"

have to a certain extent, an answer that he does not appear to be aware of.

There has for a couple of years been a nationally recognised qualification for inspecting officers and auditors which includes Fire Risk Assessment training, so whilst they may not agree with a report, they will at least be better able to understand the assessors perspective.  The intention of the qualification is not to turn the Fire Safety Enforcer into a perfectly well rounded assessor themselves,as that is not their role, but CFOA have in their recent document "Competence Framework for Business FIre Safety Regulators" clearly laid out the standards required, and these standards include achieving the qualifications mentioned earlier.

These qualifications are not competence based, as experience must be gained not taught, but they give two sides of the competency model, and it is up to the FRS to then manage the gradual build up of experience by the individual to complete the competence picture.

Many FRS that I am aware of take steps to embed the learning from these qualifications by monitoring performance in relation to the various taught inputs.  I certainly dont know about all of the FRS in the UK, and I am not coming down on one side of the fence or the other I am afraid.

I am just pointing out for the sake of balance that there are answers to some of the concerns Alan raises.

Hope this helps.

George Northey
George Northey

We are a BAFE SP203-1 registered company, now thinking we are like lions without any teeth, anyone can install fire alarm systems rightly or wrongly and who really cares if its installed without any reference to the British standards, who checks the local fire service,

We should be like gas engineers carrying a gas safe certificate, there are plenty of people who will take on a unqualified installer and prosecute, why cant it be the same with Fire Alarms.

Alan Cox
Alan Cox

@George Northey


Do you have any additional thoughts on how this should work and how it should be policed?

Should the fire service only accept systems installed by registered companies and who would look after the registration?

Should insurance companies only accept systems installed by registered companies?

Obviously, there is a cost to registration - how would small companies cover this cost?


  1. […] An interesting article by Alan Cox, Fire and Safety Consultant -Is the Fire Service the Right Enforcement Authority? […]

Alan Cox

Alan Cox

Fire-safety consultant

Author Bio ▼

Alan started his fire and safety career with Warwick County Fire Service in 1963 and served as both an Operational and Fire Safety Inspecting Officer. In 1976 he transferred to the West Midlands Fire Service until 1978 when he moved to the NHS as the District Fire Safety Officer for West Birmingham Health Authority where he was also the West Midlands Regional Health Authority Fire Advisor. During his NHS career he worked and studied for six months in the USA looking at different approaches to fire safety. He was also responsible for developing a computerized hospital fire evacuation program that was used in many major hospitals. In 1994 Alan moved to HSBC as its Senior Fire and Safety Officer responsible for the 80 countries in which the bank had a presence. During his career with HSBC he established a global approach to fire safety, organized many international fire and safety conferences, and developed a standardized method of protecting computer areas from fire. In 2005 he set up his own Fire and Safety Consultancy. During his career he has published a number of books on fire safety and made many specialist technical videos on subjects such as hospital evacuation, fire protection of electronic data protection areas, fire doors, and mail room safety. He has been awarded a Brooking NHS Travel Fellowship, Rospa Safety Professional of the Year (twice), FPA Premier Fire Safety Award, and The Prime Minister's Quality Initiative. He also contributes to many fire and safety journals including Fire, IOSH, Fire Surveyor, and Health and Safety Journal. He is a fully qualified Fire Service Inspecting Officer, member of the International Institute of Risk and Safety Managers (MIIRSM), Tech IOSH, and Qualified Fire Investigator. Alan has advised many large companies including the National Trust, Hospital Corporation of America (HCA), Kings College, Cambridge, Briton Hardware, BUPA, British Antarctic Survey Expedition, Chubb, Central Television, BBC, Radisson SAS, and the Falkland Islands Police.
August 13, 2014

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