Editor, IFSEC Global

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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.
May 4, 2022

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IFSEC Interviews

“We’re importing new building techniques, but not the necessary fire protection systems to work with them” – Jonathan O’Neill on the challenges ahead for the fire safety sector

IFSEC Global sits down with Managing Director of the Fire Protection Association, Jonathan O’Neill OBE, as he provides his thoughts on the major challenges ahead for the fire industry, his concerns over new building techniques, and what the Association has planned for FIREX 2022 this month.

 

JonathanONeill-FPA-20

Jonathan O Neill OBE, FPA Managing Director

IFSEC Global (IG): Hi Jon, how’s the last 12 months been for the FPA?

Jonathan O’Neill OBE (JON): It’s been really busy to be honest. While we stopped training during the lockdowns for a while, we didn’t close down our labs which have been running throughout.

The testing we provide has gone from strength to strength in recent years. We’ve had the labs for a while – originally to carry out bespoke testing for the insurance industry or Ministry of Defence, but then started standards testing for sprinklers about four years ago due to demand, and after Grenfell we investigated the BS 8414 testing process (fire performance of external cladding systems). We now have four rigs to carry out UKAS accredited testing on, which has been busy ever since.

We then began residential water mist testing and were the first to achieve UKAS accreditation for that, and more recently, about nine months ago, we entered into an agreement with UL. We’re launching this officially at FIREX in May, but we’ve now had furnaces delivered to carry out testing on behalf of them.

There’s real value in the testing market for the industry as more innovative designs are coming out in both active and passive fire protection systems. We’ve got some real concerns regarding passive fire protection on modern methods of construction, such as with unprotected voids and cavity barriers. All the focus is going into competency, but there’s still a concern that the construction industry doesn’t really understand how firestopping and cavity barriers work – so we believe testing will be key now, and in the future.

It’s worth noting that training is now back on the agenda, too. There’s been a big change post-Grenfell as national qualifications are now becoming more important due to the competency requirements, so we’ve reassessed our own training to ensure they’re mapped and properly accredited. We were able to use COVID to review our offering and tailor it – there’s a huge demand at present for fire risk assessors, for instance, as well as courses around the Building Safety Bill from building control and facilities managers.

“The number of questions we get at shows like FIREX demonstrates there’s a real thirst for information in the sector, and it’s a place to assist people in solving their problems by talking face-to-face.”

IG: There’s a lot going on happening in the industry – what are the challenges that really stand out for you in the months ahead?

JON: We’ve seen horrors emerge from the Grenfell inquiry – from ministers, officials, manufacturers, and plenty of others. We’ve obviously got these two key pieces of legislation, as a result, and the Building Safety Bill could help transform the industry, but my concern is that we still don’t really have a feel for what any of it really looks like. There remain questions over how the new Building Safety Regulator system will work, as well as confusion surrounding the building control framework.

Not to mention we still haven’t had a Building Regulations review – despite Grenfell, modern methods of construction and combustible materials being introduced. The sustainability agenda, in particular, should be seen as a catalyst for change to the Building regs – I’ve lost count of the number of ‘green’ buildings that have caught fire, and there seems to be very little in the way of fire resistance in the structure. Fortunately we haven’t lost any lives yet in one of these fires, but the warning signs are there.

We’re putting some of the most vulnerable people in society at risk, yet we’re not thinking about the implications because a different agenda is being pushed. Large scale fire testing doesn’t happen anymore to give us the information required to understand how a fire will spread in the building – not to mention how the fire and rescue services tackle the fire and evacuate residents.

IG: During our panel discussion last year you highlighted how you felt there was a lack of knowledge of modern building practices and systems. Is this what you’re referring to?

JON: The system that was put on Grenfell Tower – and has been used elsewhere – was never designed for residential buildings. We’re importing new building techniques from other countries, but we’re not importing the fire protection systems in that they require. For instance, we’re using wood as a building material like in the US, but any building over two storeys in the States requires a fire sprinkler system to be put in – this is not the case here.

With the best will in the world, architects and designers possibly don’t see fire safety as their number one issue. Fire hasn’t been a huge concern for many years in the UK because the fire and rescue service has had tremendous success in bringing down the number of deaths through better education, smoke detectors in buildings and other initiatives. Fire therefore came off the political agenda for a while, and with new building techniques being brought in since, there are concerns that we haven’t thought ahead once these buildings become occupied, wear and tear sets into compartmentation systems. Do we really know how the building will react if there’s a potentially catastrophic fire 10-15 years later?

It seems crazy that five years after Grenfell, we still don’t have a change in the Building Regulations, we’re still importing inappropriate techniques, and we still don’t have a structure in place that is any different to pre-Grenfell.

The news that the Building Safety Manager role is to be pulled from the Building Safety Bill has concerned many in the sector – what are your thoughts on it?

JON: You can get rid of job title, but you can’t remove the role and function. It’s a great headline to make it seem that leaseholders won’t have to be burdened with the cost, but someone ultimately still has to undertake this task.

It’s a role that’s been missing for some time, and landlords and responsible persons won’t be able to not have someone covering the role of the building safety manager.

A big concern is that there is still no certainty on what the legislative framework is going to look like, so the Government owe it to the leaseholder and resident community to explain what is actually happening and what the changes might mean for them.

IG: And finally, what are the plans for the FPA for FIREX this year? Why should attendees come by and what can they expect to see?

JON: Yes, we’re really looking forward to it. FIREX is one of the major communication pieces throughout the year for the FPA and provides a big opportunity to connect with our customers, members and wider fire safety sector. For instance, FIREX and the FPA are playing host to the Confederation of Fire Protection Associations, so there’ll be lots of international and European partners there.

The number of questions we get at shows like FIREX demonstrates there’s a real thirst for information in the sector, and it’s a place to assist people in solving their problems by talking face-to-face. From this perspective, the FPA InfoZone seminar programme will be of real interest to the visitors, which will be happening on the stand (FI2050), with topics covering fire testing, sprinklers in schools, case studies on Notre Dame and Ocado fire incidents, advice on fire risk assessing external walls, an anatomy of a fire prosecution, to name a few.

We’ve got a few exciting initiatives that we’re launching over the three days. One, related to BS 8414 testing, is looking at fingerprinting the insulation so we can identify exactly what kind of material and product has been used, to help with the external wall assessments that have come into play. And, we’ve got our new furnaces opening with UL as we’ve mentioned earlier, so there’ll be a big launch on that strand of testing, too.

A new commercial compartmentation tool is also being unveiled to help speed up the ability of surveyors on the ground to do compartmentation work, supporting large business owners and facilities managers. We think compartmentation strategies will become a key part of fire protection strategies that will be encompassed in the new bill – something which has been overlooked for too long, we feel.


 

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