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James Moore is the Editor of IFSEC Global, the leading online publication for security and fire news in the industry. James writes, commissions, edits and produces content for IFSEC Global, including articles, breaking news stories and exclusive industry reports. He liaises and speaks with leading industry figures, vendors and associations to ensure security and fire professionals remain abreast of all the latest developments in the sector.
January 6, 2022

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“Fire safety – people were complacent about it. Grenfell was the wake up call” – RICS’ Gary Strong on developing international standards and chairing the 2022 Tall Building Fire Safety Conference

Currently responsible for developing international standards and guidance for RICS professionals globally, Gary Strong, Global Director of Building Standards at the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), is also leading the International Fire Safety Standards (IFSS) Coalition supported by the UN, and the RICS fire advisory group post-Grenfell. Among being involved in several other initiatives, Gary will also be chairing one of the days at the the 2022 Tall Building Safety Conference, taking place at FIREX International on 17-19 May.

IFSEC Global sits down with Gary to discuss the role RICS is playing in improving fire safety standards globally, how surveyors can support the push for a safer built environment, and what he’s most looking forward to about chairing this year’s conference.

 

Hi Gary, can you tell us a little more about your role and experience in fire safety?

RICS-GaryStrong-22

Gary Strong, Global Director of Building Standards, RICS

Currently, I’m leading on the fire safety programme at the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS). My background as a chartered building surveyor specialising in post-fire investigation work resulted in me leading the team in the response to the Grenfell Fire.

What’s interesting is that while we’re doing a lot of work with all the UK devolved nations, we’re also collaborating with a lot of international teams as well. There are a lot of global inconsistencies when dealing with tall building fires – some countries have very few standards, whereas others, such as Australia and New Zealand, have largely mirrored the UK over the years but also taken it to another level. We need to learn off each other, and as RICS acts in the public interest, being a royal chartered body, we are trying to develop a more robust and globally consistent approach.

A lot of international Government ministers have been carefully assessing the UK Government’s response to Grenfell. They want to understand what happened and what can be done to prevent such a disaster from ever happening in their countries.

It was, of course, devastating for the victims, families and local community. An aspect that isn’t as widely known nor discussed, is the damage it did to ‘brand UK’, as well. International investors and lenders started to become very hesitant almost overnight about building developments in the UK – we’re a supposedly ‘sophisticated and developed nation’, but clearly our standards and regulation were not up to scratch.

We understand, off the back of this, you’ve formed an International Fire Safety Standards (IFSS) Coalition? What’s its purpose?

Yes, exactly. We formed the International Safety Standards Coalition to try and do something in the public interest on a global scale. It has the backing of the United Nations (UN), who hosted the launch of the coalition in July 2018, and it’s quadrupled in size since then. It now has over 80 professional bodies like the RICS and a large number of supporters around the world.

The purpose relates to the inconsistencies in avoiding and response to fires – we’re trying to support countries in particular who don’t have much fire safety regulation or set codes and standards, as well as supporting and sharing knowledge.

This has culminated in the International Fire Safety Standards Common Principles – published in October 2020 and which the UN has adopted. Though, of course, simply having good standards doesn’t necessarily mean they’re implemented, which is why education, training and resources are so important. We have since launched our UN-backed campaign, ‘Decade of Action for Fire Safety 2022 -2032’, to drive improvements in fire research, standards, guidance, education, training, awareness and competency.

Events like the Tall Buildings Conference, which has such an international audience, will be key in the development and promotion of the campaign. It’s also where supporters like the UN and the World Bank come to their fore – they can help us join dots we wouldn’t have had access to before and make necessary connections.

Independent third-party approvals are a big focus for FIREX this year. How important do you think these are for a safer built environment going forwards?

Yes, we really support it. Third-party accreditation is so important as there are always going to be ‘crooks’ trying to game the system and provide fake certificates, or sell cheap imports that aren’t tested, which is incredibly dangerous. We’ve seen reports last year that a cheaply produced sprinkler head has been circulating in the market, for instance, with no accreditations or testing – low and behold, it doesn’t work.

Products need to be properly tested and accredited, provided it’s done with the right combinations of products and materials, of course. Manufacturers have to take responsibility by making it easier for designers and contractors to understand what their products are certified for, while certification bodies need to ensure they’re clear on the nature of testing carried out. One small change in the material or coating for example can completely change the whole fire performance of a product.

It’s tough for architects and designers otherwise. Alongside everything else they need to think about as they try to match the right products with the building requirements, they’re also tasked with understanding the various standards and testing regimes, which they often just don’t have the capacity to do.

This is why the digitisation process, which was picked up on by Dame Judith Hackitt in her report, will be so important going forward. Having a digital record – or a ‘golden thread’, as she explained – enables surveyors and the rest of the supply chain to know exactly what products have been used at what stage.

What can surveyors do to support the improvement of fire safety standards?

BuildingSafety-20It can be difficult for surveyors, especially when there are often no historical records of the products that have been used and installed within a building. It’s certainly made the EWS-1 form process for external wall systems very challenging over the past two years. The Golden Thread principle and digitisation of records will again be crucial to improving standards.

The sub-contractor nature of industry is still the real issue and plays into the lack of as-built records and reporting, too. On a building site you can get one person turning up to drill one or two holes in a fire compartment wall, leaving, and this not being communicated up the chain.

Ultimately, people were largely complacent about fire safety before June 2017. Everything was focused on the energy performance of buildings, but not enough were considering fire safety as well, only the specialists.

Grenfell Tower has placed fire safety at centre stage for all surveyors. My message to the industry is that this isn’t going to go away anytime soon, either. It’s all about the competence of people and behaviours. Think about it in terms of ‘SKEB’ – Skills, Knowledge, Experience and Behaviour. Each of these play into competency.

Ethics is also an important part of the competency process, particularly after the revelations of the Grenfell Inquiry. At RICS we’ve embraced this and implemented it into our qualification and training programmes.

You’re chairing a day at the 2022 Tall Building Fire Safety Conference – what are you looking forward to at the event?

I’ve always enjoyed the Tall Buildings Conference. Russ Timpson does an exceptional job of putting together a highly engaging panel of speakers and the delegates are truly international.

As we’ve discussed, speaking to like-minded professionals from other countries is vitally important in sharing best practice techniques and processes – the industry should have the same goal no matter where you are, to prevent loss of life from fire. We can all learn from each other and the conference always makes you come away with snippets you wouldn’t have thought about before.

I remember one presentation where a delegate from Singapore explained that they have a mandate to build in fire refuge floors to tower blocks, for instance.

So yes, I’d really encourage industry professionals to get involved and come along!


Gary Strong, Global Director of Building Standards, Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors

Gary is currently responsible for developing international standards and guidance for RICS professionals globally across 137 countries and post Grenfell Tower is leading the RICS fire advisory group advising government. He is also a member of the UK Construction Industry Council Building Safety Panel, and the Government IRG Competence Steering Group. Gary is Chair of the UN-backed International Fire Safety Standards (IFSS) Coalition, Chair of the CTBUH (Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat) Fire & Life Safety Committee and an adviser to the RMIT University, Melbourne fire engineering group.

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