Fire safety Q&A

“Building regulations need property resilience”: FM Global’s Tom Roche

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Adam Bannister is a contributor to IFSEC Global, having been in the role of Editor from 2014 through to November 2019. Adam also had stints as a journalist at cybersecurity publication, The Daily Swig, and as Managing Editor at Dynamis Online Media Group.
October 10, 2019


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(Image: Royal Clarence Hotel, Exeter, morning after the fire, October 2016. Credit: Smalljim CC BY-SA 4.0)

IFSEC Global sat down with Tom Roche, senior consultant, international codes and standards at FM Global, to discuss the fire safety landscape more than two years on from the worst residential fire in living memory.

He explains why property protection should be incorporated into building regulations, how frustration abounds about the pace of change and why improving fire safety should be an ongoing process, not a once-in-a-generation overhaul in response to tragedy.

IFSEC Global: In a recent article on IFSEC Global you recommended that property protection be incorporated into the building regulations?

Tom Roche: I see more people talking about the need to make people safe, but we also need to protect property. Recent events like the Barking fire have highlighted that.

Some people can look at that and say it was a success: thankfully nobody died, very few injuries. However, I’d argue that 20 homes have been destroyed by a fire that started on a balcony. That can’t be the outcome we wanted.

So people are starting to question that direction. I think that’s a good thing to do. Some people would say that as an insurer we would say that. But from a societal point of view you can’t keep losing buildings to fire and claiming it’s a success.

IG: Building regulations don’t really account for resilience at all at present, do they?

TR: That’s right. But we could include property resilience – and I believe we should.

And it should be done proportionally. I think people fear that if you introduce property protection or resilience thinking then your garden shed is going to need some sort of fire protection.

“We can’t lose buildings to one fire event and say it’s a success”

We need a level of protection for certain buildings, like schools, infrastructure or larger employers. We can’t lose them needlessly to one fire event and say it’s a success. That sounds crazy to me.

IG: What steps must be taken to achieve a higher level of property protection for certain buildings?

TR: We’ve learned from the issues around the regulatory framework that we need more joined-up thinking. We’ve got to use the right materials and understand how they perform, so we’ve got to test them. And we have to build knowledge about what those tests mean, about the performance of materials.

We must be more open to the idea that we’re going to protect some buildings. That might mean sprinkler systems or warning systems. It might mean using a bit more passive fire protection.

Dame Judith Hackitt used the phrase “layers of safety”, which we’ve got to be open to.

We have to help people understand what fire risk means in terms of safety, but also in terms of their property, and ask them what outcome they want.

If you want to be back in that building in one day’s time after a fire, it means achieving certain outcomes. And you have to be prepared to invest in order to achieve those outcomes.

We want teachers to be concentrating on educating kids; you don’t want them worried about how to rebuild their school.

You’d think we’d do that today in the UK, but actually it’s not happening.

It’s about informed decision-making and being responsible for it. But that needs a move away from just complying with building regulations and using them as the maximum standard.

Instead we should see them for what they are: a minimum acceptable level of protection. And if we want certain other outcomes we have to be clear how building owners can get there.

IG: What are the barriers to achieving this change in approach?

TR: Cost is a big one. And [the difficulty of effecting a] cultural shift.

It’s also about skills. People are now looking at compliance as the end-game. You’ve got to shift more towards the outcome you want from a particular facility or building and think about how you achieve that.

And we’ve got to use all tools in our toolkit, whether that’s different levels of protection or good quality construction using the right products, tested in the correct way.

IG: You spoke about this and other fire safety issues on two panels at FIREX 2019. What was the feeling among fellow industry professionals about the progress made (or not made) since the Grenfell tragedy?

TR: People are still trying to digest what the recent Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government consultation says. There are enhancements and different ways of thinking to what we’ve seen before.

We also need to understand what the golden thread means for property owners.

There is a sense of frustration that things are taking a long time. Is there a plan? Where are we going?

There’s this need to get on with things, but I see [uncertainty about] what the right thing to do is. Some people are waiting for others to tell them what to do; others are getting on with things.

“People were expecting more concrete action by now, not another consultation”

There’s still that lack of clarity. At FIREX I heard a curiousness to know what all the consultations and announcements mean. There’s concern that it’s not as clear as people hoped it would be and that sense of frustration. People were expecting more concrete action by now, not another consultation.

I’m working on some of these working groups and there’s a lot going on. We just have to make the rubber hit the road and get on with this stuff now.

I think this notion of duty-holders, making it clear who is responsible for what, is a great idea. But at the same time we’re never going to have the perfect solution. We can spend years debating the perfect solution but [at some point we have to] accept a solution.

IG: Even if the new approach isn’t perfect – as nothing is – further improvements can be made on an ongoing basis, right?

TR: That’s it. FM Global are always scanning ahead to anticipate the issues our clients are going to face, and doing research to work out what we can do about that.

I think it’s the same with building regulations and research. Building regulations can’t be static. We have to keep scanning ahead, do the research, and review it again in three years’ time – otherwise we’re storing up problems from the future.

And in three years’ time we might agree it’s still good or we might need to change something. We can’t expect the regulations to still be [fit for purpose] after 14 years with no review.

We’re still using a building regulation document that was published before the first iPhone was launched.

Just look at how building materials and how we use buildings has evolved in those 14 years. We want more flexibility in our buildings.

IG: How else is FM Global contributing positively to the debate?

TR: We’re actively promoting the need to think about property protection, to think about sprinklers and to look ahead to new risks.

Let’s not wait for them to become a problem. Let’s try and anticipate some of those problems and find solutions.

“One struggle is getting people to branch out of their area of expertise”

Look at what FM Global are around cyber insurance: using predictive analytics and offering techniques for protecting businesses against cyber-attack.

We have to use data analytics. Not just to tell us that bad things have happened, but to say “that could happen again, this is where it might happen” and then help people do something about it.

From a UK perspective, we’ve built some problems into our built environment, so that data needs to be viewed carefully to understand the impact of those problems going forward.

One struggle is getting people to branch out of their area of expertise. People tend to only think about their own domain – whether that’s active fire suppression, sprinklers or the passive protection business – but we need everyone to be aware of each other’s products and expertise.

Not in intricate detail, but how they complement each other or where there might be clashes. They need to be having more conversations.

IG: Any changes to regulations, standards and culture could be undermined if the skills shortage – and competency – in fire engineering is not addressed…

TR: There is a skills gap. We’ve got to make the industry attractive for people and all trade associations are trying to [do something about it].

FM Global is making sure we’re attractive to people, showing them a career path, through training, a way they can grow. Maybe they join us as an engineer then become an underwriter, maybe run the company one day.

We also need more female engineers, to complement the skills we have in the industry.

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