Security market analyst

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Hunter Seymour is a security market analyst with expertise in both the fire and security markets.
January 10, 2022

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The 2022 State of Physical Access Control Report

Fire risk management

Zero tolerance: The impact of Covid on fire safety risk management

The yo-yo effect of an unpredictable Covid-driven timeline of lockdowns, alternating with easements of restrictions, has placed a massive burden of responsibility on risk management over the past two years, requiring constant vigilance from those charged with safeguarding the public. Now, as 2022 is here, it is a timely moment to look back at lessons learned from the impact Covid has made on the duties of fire and security professionals as the pandemic spread into every stratum of society – homes and workplaces – and to consider safety critical pathways towards best practice for the years ahead. Hunter Seymour reports.

Crime 2020-2021: a rise sparked by Covid

Risk managers will remember that their concerns about the exacting terms of compliance with the new Coronavirus Emergency Restrictions enforced in March 2020, which resulted in widespread business closures, were compounded by anxieties about the rise in crime that might result from the closure of the night-time economy for several months of the year.

SocialDistancing-AndriyPopov-AlamyStock

Credit: AndriyPopov/AlamyStock


Certainly, the latest crime figures from ONS (Office of National Statistics) confirm their disquiet. The latest survey from ONS shows that England and Wales had “a 12% increase in total crime, driven by a 43% increase in fraud and computer misuse” during the Covid period. Figures from the ABI (Association of British Insurers) reflect this intensifying threat by stating “the value of the average fraud and fraud detection rates increased” onwards of 2020.

It’s also reported that the effect of lockdowns leads to false claims by non-trading commercial enterprises, especially if stock has become obsolete in the lockdown period. Another outcome of the 2020-21 pandemic saw many commercial and residential buildings and school premises continuously unoccupied, which made them vulnerable to crime.

Arson and high-rise fires

We also learn that during pandemics “criminals take advantage of behavioural changes” and resultant “limited social contact”, a trend confirmed when we examine latest figures for Arson attacks during the Covid years, which show a 2% rise in fire-setting incidents against the previous recorded year. However, the ONS figures are qualified by the reservation that the “incidence of many types of crime… has generally been followed by a return towards previous incidence levels once lockdowns ended.”

As it is, the scale of property at risk by fire is underlined by the rise in the latest fire insurance claims – a national upturn of over 7% – reported by ABI. At the same time, a new Research England Report draws attention to troubling new data – fresh insights into fire hazards in multi-storey high-rise apartment blocks that reveal “…flat dwellers are exposed to a much greater probability of their building experiencing a fire than those living in other dwelling types, and are more than twice as likely to die and just under twice as likely to be injured in a fire.”

In addition, the Report warns that high-rise storeys increase the fire risk. “The floor height that a fire originates on suggests there is positive relationship between increases in height and higher rates of fires resulting in a fatality or casualty.” A conclusion due to “the higher numbers of people normally resident in high-rise buildings, increasing the risk of fires breaking out.”

Yet, looking back over the past decade, the Report also states that annual fires have increased “for flats at specific building heights – most notably for medium-rise flats between 11m and 18m high.” (four to six storeys high on average.)

Arson… learning lessons

Only a month ago eight people, including children, were rescued after a fire, understood to have been started deliberately, broke out at a 13-storey block of flats. A pushchair and other items on a staircase were set alight on the 10th floor lobby, the fire service reported, and could have spread to nearby flats. A number of residents were led to safety by firefighters who used smoke hoods to protect them.

This recent case, which could have had fatal consequences, reminds us of warnings by high-rise residents addressed to Tenant Management teams identifying failures to deal rigorously with health and safety issues such as abandoned ­– possibly combustible – “bulk waste” accumulating in communal areas or the absence of signage when temporary fire exits are in use due to Improvement Works.

Clearly in the midst of the pandemic there has been a temptation to have lockdown “clear-outs” of unwanted items – whether heaped in the communal areas of residential buildings or in the walkways of the workplace – comprising combustible materials that invite arson opportunists or even compromise your premises’ means of escape… fire doors. Such negligence could amount to another tragedy waiting to happen.

Fire doors… unintended consequences

Doors are mentioned as a contact risk in government guidance on coronavirus transmission. However, Dr Peter Wilkinson, Technical Director, Institution of Fire Engineers, draws our attention to an unforeseen outcome from too literal an interpretation of Covid regulatory compliance.

A report had been received from the user of an underground car park. It was “observed that a pedestrian exit from the car park, marked clearly as a fire exit, was secured closed with a chain and padlock.” Access or egress had generally been available by means of a keypad or swipe card. Discussion with the manager of the facility revealed that there had been concern about virus transmission via the use of the keypad so it was decided to secure the door to prevent its use. The removal of this exit created a 70m dead end condition.

It goes without saying ­– lockdown or no lockdown – applying locks and chains to exits that may be required in case of an emergency can only have fatal consequences.

“Ever ready, stand steady.” The watchword of the dutyholder

At the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic the World Health Organization “rang the alarm bell loud and clear.” The WHO Director-General from the very beginning urged nations to “Prepare and be ready. Innovate and learn.”

That process of readiness and innovation continues to define the duties of fire and security professionals as they engage with shifting safety criteria in response to regulatory changes.

As frontline risk management face yet another year’s uncertainties, their responsibilities are daunting but, in the face of anxieties, they can find no better motivation than the example of one man who personifies the belief that “Cometh the hour, cometh the Man” whose experience in every respect demonstrates the truth that “desperate times call for desperate measures”.

That exemplary “Responsible Person,” is 9/11 hero Rick Rescorla, the Cornish security specialist who personally led a massive evacuation of 2,700 employees from the 44th Floor to safety from the South Tower, thanks to his anticipation of terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the brilliance of his forethought in rigorously drilling staff for evacuation procedures, ensuring that when the first hijacked plane struck his emergency plan was safely implemented.

When the enemy is fire, Rescorla’s persistence in his fulfilment of due diligence ­was a battle won, because he encountered resistance from administrators to his strict adherence to drills and the regular instruction of all employees – whatever their status ­– in fire emergency basics. He fought corporate reluctance. He taught that, in effect, all employees of a building should be “first responders” in the sense that they needed to empower themselves to meet the challenges of keeping a cool head in an emergency.

Like this 9/11 hero’s example, today’s fire and security professionals should aim for a conscious adaptive tailored approach to evacuation in the event of a fire, as a continuing consultative duty exercised with rigour and an open mind. As the 9/11 survivors recalled in tribute, Rescorla remarkably led them to safety singing the Cornish ballad: “…Stand ye steady, it cannot be ever said ye for the battle were not ready.”

Checklist for risk managers in the Covid era

As outlined here, alert risk management has to do more than double-guess the shifting behavioural patterns of the New Normal. Their mantra should be “Constant Awareness” with particular regard to these Covid-secure issues:

  • Covid can impact on your premises with changes of layout such as one-way systems to maintain social distancing. Perhaps exits are in different places due to these new “traffic flow“ pathways imposed by compliance with Covid restrictions. So, you need to make sure your risk assessment is suitable for the building in its current usage.
  • Distances to exits should be reviewed to conform to safe evacuation criteria should new Covid-secure measures impose changes to existing route plans. Such considerations can fall under the heading of Change of Use, even if such changes are temporary. Furniture and fittings (such as ‘hot-desking’) may have been repositioned due to Covid measures so these should be taken into account in your assessment.
  • Levels of stockholding may have changed so it could be that adjustments should be made to your evaluation of hazards, including presence of combustible materials.
  • In short, risk management should review their latest assessment in the light of Covid’s impact on the functioning of the premises to ensure that any significant changes are recorded and acted upon by all those accountable. Recording all changes to your emergency plan is critical.
  • Changing volumes of occupancy can condition your fire risk assessment. Should the volume of persons passing through the building change significantly this factor, too, should be evaluated to determine any resultant safety issues; disabled persons in increased numbers, for example (concessionary days for senior citizens, perhaps).
  • Signage for routes to safety should also be evaluated to reflect any policy changes arising from new Covid measures. Additionally, prominently displayed signage should direct all those entering premises to observe all current Covid-secure practices.
  • As more and more businesses make adjustments to their workplaces it’s inevitable that more questions will be asked in response to circumstances that change. Nevertheless, Fire and Rescue Services are concerned to point out that the provisions of the Fire Safety Order are very carefully devised to answer most questions and should be referred to in most cases where answers are sought. Early on in the pandemic, the UK’s major Fire Safety bodies made it clear that there could be no relaxation on fire safety law due to the impact of Covid-19 on fire safety measures.

In conclusion, the duty of the Responsible Persons to appoint competent persons to assist them in undertaking precautionary and protective measures is an essential part of an emergency plan. However, according to recent reports, the shift to home-working for workers in the big cities is seeing a 40% reduction in footfall in corporate offices. It’s not hard to imagine the absence of critical personnel in a crisis due to these new routines so it’s crucial your scheduling takes such absences into account.

There must be zero tolerance of any negligence in emergency planning.

Additional resources

Fire Safety in 2021 eBook – Is the industry ready to embrace systemic change?

Download the Fire Safety in 2021 eBook, as IFSEC Global and FIREX International keep you up to date with the biggest stories of the year, including new legislation, a round-up of the biggest news stories, and articles on third-party certification and the role of digital information software in meeting golden thread principles.

The eBook also features an exclusive foreword from the Fire Industry Association's Ian Moore, and a look at how the sector embraces systemic change in attitudes to risk and safety.

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