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Freelance journalist

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Ron Alalouff is a journalist specialising in the fire and security markets, and a former editor of websites and magazines in the same fields.
November 21, 2022


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Are the sustainability and fire safety agendas compatible?

At the Fire Conference 2022 last month, delegates heard about the need to put sustainability at the heart of what fire safety professionals think and do from Steve Hamm, Chief Executive of the Institution of Fire Engineers.


Steve Hamm, Chief Executive of the Institution of Fire Engineers

The topic of sustainability is so important that the impetus for it has to come from the top of organisations, said Steve Hamm. “Some things have to come from the board – sustainability is one of those.”

Once that is the case, an organisation such as the Institution of Fire Engineers (IFE) needs to inject sustainability into everything it does. For example, how do we assess membership and registration, ethics, values, behaviour, CPD and qualifications in terms of sustainability? The syllabus is certainly getting broader.

Its members are expected to have an understanding of what is going on in terms of sustainability, he said, and to have an understanding of the challenges to fire safety that sustainability poses. They are expected to have a commitment to ethical behaviour – this is vital. But how do we ensure there is demonstrable evidence of ethical behaviour? They are also expected to contribute to sustainable solutions rather than adding to the problems, in other words to understand what we are dealing with regarding fire safety and sustainability.

READ: Building resilience and competence in fire engineering – Interview with the IFE’s Steve Hamm

Organisations such as the IFE also have to become centres of excellence on sustainable technology. What does the move away from fossil fuels towards battery technology mean for fire safety? The answer is that there are a number of challenges – there’s less potential for fuel spillages, but how many electric vehicles could potentially be involved in a fire? Part of the problem is that we don’t know some of the answers. We also need to identify research agendas at universities and collect the questions to which answers are needed.

Improving knowledge

The kinds of subject that need to be considered when tackling sustainability include:

  • The ‘people’ pillar of the Decade of Action for Fire Safety
  • Alternative fuels for public transport (such as hydrogen powered buses and trains) and for the built environment
  • Large-scale use of timber in construction
  • Climate change-related CPD for members, in response to what is happening around the world, such as wildfires
  • Renewed focus of special interest groups on sustainability, for example waste and recycling
  • Mass migration of people, because their place of origin is no longer sustainable, resulting in refugee camps

“We only have one known unknown at the moment, which is that we don’t know the agenda. For example, how do these new technologies impact the emergency services and first responders? What about a lorry fire on a motorway in 2025 – what’s that going to look like? That is just one relatively straightforward example which raises lots of questions.”

The session then opened up to a panel discussion with Mark Chubb of the IFE, Tom Roche of the Fire Sector Federation, and Howard Passey of the Fire Protection Association.

Mark Chubb said that for the IFE, sustainability is about stopping the damage that we’re already witnessing from climate change. “But it’s only a waypoint to a transformative revolution in the way that we think about our relationship with technology, the built environment and society… encompassing a more integrated and regenerative approach to engineering and meeting our responsibilities to society.”

Increasing the voice of fire safety

Tom Roche added he would probably use three words: challenge; frustration; and opportunity. The challenge is that sustainability and sustainable thinking is not new. We are living through a lot of changes that are due in some respect to sustainability, whether that is the way we are constructing buildings, to the way we are using buildings, to some of the new technologies we are putting into buildings.

The frustration is that fire safety is only a small part of the discussion, and is often not on the table. It’s not measured, it’s not part of the measurables of sustainability, and that leads to a sense of frustration. But there’s a fantastic opportunity to get fire safety into that discussion; there are lots of competing voices, but we need to be part of the solution.

Howard Passey said that while he thought the current drive for sustainability was compatible with fire safety, there is a lot more thinking to be done. Sometimes fire gets missed and other factors get more prominence – such as photovoltaics and energy storage systems – and other risks that are being introduced into the built environment as a result of the sustainability agenda, which at the moment we probably don’t know enough about in terms of how we’re going to deal with them. And sometimes there’s a far too piecemeal approach – fire is looking at it from one perspective, but issues such as escape of water or storm damage and flooding also have to be considered.


“If we don’t think about those two issues, just as an example, sensibly, we could well be developing and designing buildings which are sustainable from a zero emissions or carbon reduction perspective, but then they turn out to be far less resilient as a result of escape of water or from flood. So there is a need for a joined-up conversation.

“We see the government quite rightly sets targets, but what we tend not to see is any leadership in terms of guidance and a more collegiate approach to dealing with the various factors of that conversation, which need to be brought together to make it work effectively.”

There had been previous debates about the relative merits of insulation and fire resistance with the use of sandwich panels in the food industry. Now, many food industry premises are going through replacement programmes to remove combustible cored panels and replace them with materials that are non-combustible. There’s also now the introduction of more combustible materials into our built environment, so there seems to be a bit of a dichotomy there that needs to be resolved.

Breaking out of silos

Tom Roche noted how the alignment between fire safety and sustainability can be very strong, as both consider environmental, social and economic factors. We sometimes get too focussed about doing our own thing – we need to broaden out to recognise what others are trying to achieve and how fire safety fits in that discussion. Until then, we’re always going to be fighting in separate silos and having different discussions, he explained.

Mark Chubb agreed that a more joined-up approach is needed. That begins by not seeing sustainability or fire safety as nouns, but rather as verbs. When we think about standards we think about how to achieve some desired end state – the minimum acceptable performance. But we need to define how we get to a variety of end-points, considering that those end-points are going to shift over time, with sustainability telling us that how we define an acceptable level of improvement is going to keep shifting.

If we want to move towards a more resilient and sustainable approach, we need to recognise that our previous goal has changed from ‘How are we going to get everyone out of the building? to ‘How do we get them all back in?’ said Mark Chubb. It’s not enough to get people out of a building, we need to restore a certain level of normalcy. We need to think beyond the immediate problem of ‘How do I keep something bad from happening?’ to ‘How do I make sure something good happens?’


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