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
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close, that were wedged open, left open and poorly upgraded together with a poorly protected external fire escape, out-of-date PAT and extinguisher testing and poor electrical wiring, to name a few.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
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
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
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
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:
- Adequate means of escape
- Adequate means to ensure escape routes can be used when required
- Adequate means for giving warning
- Adequate means for fighting fire
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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