Editor, Safety & Health Practitioner

May 12, 2021

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Health and safety

Fire competency – A guide for safety practitioners

Howard Passey, Director of Operations and Principal Consultant at the Fire Protection Association, explores fire competency and what those responsible for health and safety within a building need to know.

Howard PasseyCompetent provision of fire safety is more than just a tick box operation. When approached and conducted properly and appropriately, it can save lives and protect buildings and businesses. Following the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, the issues surrounding fire competency were brought to the fore, with the Hackitt review revealing multiple failings with regards to high-risk buildings such as large residential blocks.

In response, the government drafted the Building Safety Bill which will place responsibility for the safety of high-risk buildings on all involved in the design, construction and management of buildings. Within this, day-to-day responsibility will be placed on Building Safety Managers (BSMs) – a newly created role anticipated to be met in large part by the health and safety manager or officer.

Competency and the law

Over the past few years, several major fires, including those at Grenfell Tower and Lakanal House, have raised questions about what competency looks like for those responsible for fire safety. Currently there is no consistent legal definition, despite the subsequent Hackitt Review which highlighted the lack of a coherent and comprehensive approach to competence and warned of its potential to compromise safety. So, the problem has been acknowledged, but where do health and safety managers start? Here we outline three key guiding principles for ensuring you are acting competently over fire safety.

  1. Assess your risk

By law, the responsible person or duty holder, usually the owner or occupier of the premises, must make a ‘suitable and sufficient assessment of the risks’ in a building, and implement safety measures appropriate to the circumstances. Safety officers may often find they carry day-to-day responsibility for fire safety arrangements and, in future, may be nominated as the BSM within their building or business. In either case they can be treated as a person with control and hence carry responsibility for ensuring safety.

Part of this role will be to ensure the fire risk assessment remains suitable and sufficient. Amongst the wider factors reviewed and considered, a competent fire risk assessor will need to identify potentially combustible and flammable materials within the building, from cooking oil in kitchens to excess amounts of combustible storage or fuel used for back-up generators or plant.  Depending on what is found, these specific issues may highlight the need for a DSEAR (Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmosphere Regulations 2002) assessment, which itself is a legal requirement, where there are risks posed by the storage and use of dangerous substances.

Hence, safety officers should be seeking out education and training to help them understand the process, the risks and accountability, and the level of detail required to undertake the fire risk assessment. Suitable training will also help when implementing the recommendations made during the risk assessment. Importantly, ensuring good fire safety practices is not a one-off task – it requires safety officers to test and maintain the building’s fire protocols and protection measures on an ongoing basis. For this reason, officers need to ensure they are up to speed with the latest regulations – including the new responsibilities outlined in the draft Building Safety Bill and Fire Safety Bill – alongside good practice. One simple way safety officers can stay up to date on these key changes is by reading industry publications, such as The FPA’s Fire & Risk Management Journal.

  1. Consult an accredited third party

Despite the many requirements placed on safety practitioners, it’s important to remember that they’re not in it alone and are not expected to know all the answers all of the time. This is where seeking support from third-party certified fire risk assessors is particularly beneficial, as they will have the experience, knowledge and skills to make a competent assessment of the risks. In many cases, certification provides a measure of comfort to safety managers in having acted responsibly and appropriately, yet it is not universally adopted.

Third-party certification is the principal way to ensure traceability and suitability, so a wider cultural change is required to ensure it becomes a habit, rather than an option. When it comes to fire safety, a responsible and competent third-party approved risk assessor will work with you to identify the risks and appropriate control measures and this should be seen as an investment in both the safety of occupants and resilience of the business.

It is the FPA’s standpoint that if a BSM or internal member of staff does find themselves responsible for carrying out a fire risk assessment in a high-rise or high-risk property, they should seek to undertake appropriate training and preferably qualification. A course delivered online in a matter of hours is simply not going to cover the full breadth of the risks, and the same applies for any form of fire safety measure, not just risk assessments.

  1. Establish and implement a thorough fire strategy

Implementing a fire strategy which is specific to the premises and its use is vital. Fire strategies underpin both the fire risk assessment and a business impact analysis, and ensure that the makeup of the premises, the fire safety facilities provided and management of the premises act cohesively to protect life and essential property in the event of a fire. But in our experience, there isn’t always a robust strategy in place. The standard PAS911 published by BSI, Fire strategies – guidance and framework for their formulation referred to a fire strategy as providing ‘a clear set of measures encompassing fire precautions, management of fire safety and fire protection’. It involves the development and implementation of systems, policies and procedures that address relevant risks, with an aim to reduce life risk while also protecting business procedures and assets.

Fire strategies are not one-size-fits-all but should be developed and aligned to the business’ requirements and the building’s specifications, and will also recognise the fire evacuation plan for the premises. This should consider, by way of both principal procedures and person-centred assessments, the people at risk, where they are in the building, the risks that cannot be removed or reduced any further, the size and layout of the building and the processes that occur within it.

Fire competency is more than carrying out a risk assessment and practicing regular fire drills. By seeking out support and guidance from certified third-party providers, developing a fire strategy with qualified professionals and regularly updating their own knowledge, health and safety officers can be sure that they are taking the appropriate action in line with their changing responsibilities.

Click here for more information on third-party accreditation, fire safety competency and other vital fire safety resources available to safety officers.

This article was first published on SHP Online.

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