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July 7, 2021

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Opinion

The Fire Safety Act: Potential pitfalls and how the fire industry can overcome them

Mike Fox, founder and MD of MAF Associates, takes an in-depth look at the Fire Safety Act 2021, its potential pitfalls with regards to the new requirements on fire risk assessments and advice for how to overcome them.

The Fire Safety Act 2021 (FSA), which is now law in England and Wales, is essentially an update and clarification of the Regulatory Reform Order – Fire Safety Order 2005. The primary driver of the FSA was to bring fire regulations and standards up to date, taking account of the lessons learnt from the Grenfell fire. Though the FSA only consists of three primary clauses, it has major implications for both fire professionals and responsible persons, with severe consequences if the new standards are not adhered to.

Put simply, if you are the person responsible for any residential building, you could be held personally liable for any future breaches. The FSA may owe its existence to fire safety issues in high-rise structures, but in fact it applies to any building containing two or more domestic units, with new or revised rules that apply to the building’s structure, external walls, and any common parts, including the access doors to each apartment.

Perhaps most importantly, the FSA clarifies that references to external walls in the 2005 order include ‘doors or windows in those walls’ and ‘anything attached to the exterior of those walls (including balconies)’. The amendments are designed to facilitate fire safety, while also making it easier to take enforcement action in these areas where needed, although the requirement for external Fire Risk Assessments (FRAs) brings challenges of its own, as many current FRAs are only trained to conduct internal inspections.

Supply and demand

While the FSA is welcome, it is our ability to carry out the necessary inspections and surveys on existing buildings that will be problematic. As most existing FRAs are not qualified or equipped to undertake inspections to external facades and cladding, and even those that are may struggle to obtain professional indemnity insurance, there is a big gap between what the new law says and what can actually be achieved in the short term. Also, quite typically for the UK government – and I refer to no particular political party here – no provision has been made for making up the shortfall with accelerated training or other initiatives.

In other words, they made the law and the rest is up to us.

Assessing residential buildings was previously a relatively straightforward task involving the internal layout of the building, fire systems, evacuation routes and internal compartmentation. External inspections are something that most FRAs were hardly ever asked to do before the Grenfell fire as the issue rarely arose and, when it did, it was simple to engage a qualified engineer to carry out the necessary inspections. Cladding engineering and facade surveying are professions in themselves, requiring many years of training and experience in order to conduct comprehensive external fire risk assessments.

On top of all this, the FSA itself is relatively sketchy in terms of what the new requirements entail. This advice needs to come from guidance documents, but none have been published. A guidance document for external fire risk assessments (PAS 9980) is being developed, so the Fire Industry Association (FIA) has issued provisional guidance to FRAs, setting out the problems and pitfalls they are likely to face.

The guidance states that the FRA should carry out a visual inspection of the building based on appropriate guidance and, if they decide that a full external wall assessment is required, they will make a priority recommendation in their report. However, there is no clear guidance over what the requirements are to necessitate a full inspection, which means that many existing FRAs are unwilling to take a judgement call without further training and clarification.

Right now, there are probably six companies in the country that can offer the full internal and external fire risk assessments as a single service. Even allowing for freelance surveyors and engineers, who may be able to work alongside existing FRAs to complete the full list of required inspections, if they can get the right insurances, we are still talking about a few hundred qualified professionals in a country of 67 million people. With an estimated 1,700 high-rise residential buildings (over 18 metres) in England, and up to 10,000 medium-rise (11 to 18 metres), this is not going to be a rapid process.

The FSA is Only the Beginning

The Government freely admits that the FSA is a framework for secondary legislation and revised standards, which are likely to be guided by the final outcomes of the long-running Grenfell Inquiry. In addition to embedding the new ‘Stay Put’ policy, which includes a Part 6 fire system plus BS8629-compliant evacuation system into law, this is also likely to include provision for Personal Emergency Escape Plans (PEEPS) for disabled people living in medium and high-rise residential blocks.

For the Responsible Person overseeing each building, the new laws will likely include further requirements to communicate with residents regularly regarding fire safety measures, evacuation plans, the outcomes of fire risk assessments, and any issues that may arise. Increased checks on fire doors and other safety measures will also be mandated, above and beyond the fire risk assessments themselves.

The overall aim is to ensure that fire safety measures, evacuation plans and fire systems are not simply installed and then ignored. The first requirement is to ensure that they are fit for purpose, and then to make sure they stay that way as the building evolves over time. This will bring with it the requirement for more detailed record keeping on the part of the Responsible Person, which could also include a legal requirement to inform the Fire Service if any elements of the building’s system, such as the smoke control system, are defective or inoperable.

One final provision, which I would welcome, is the requisite installation of so-called Premises Information Boxes (PIBs) – secure cabinets containing all the information the Fire Service needs in the event of a fire, such as floor plans, evacuation plans, a full list of occupants and details of any installed systems, such as BS8629, smoke control or sprinklers. This is a very basic requirement that could make a big difference in an actual fire situation, but only if the RP ensure it is kept up to date.

Making It Work

Let me be very clear that I am fully in favour of the FSA and what it represents. The purpose of this article is simply to point out where the pitfalls are likely to occur and to explain why the simple act of signing this legislation will not magically solve the problem. So, what can we do to make this happen as quickly and as smoothly as possible?

We already know that the preferred temporary solution for defective buildings is Waking Watch or a Part 1 fire system covering both communal areas and residential units. Once the structure is made safe, this can substituted for the combination of a Part 6 system and a BS8629-compliant evacuation alert system. Even buildings that have no defective cladding could be classed as high risk under the new rules, where compartmentation has been compromised for example, so things are likely to get worse before they get better.

In the short-term, we need existing FRAs to work closely with suitably qualified cladding and facade professionals to ensure that the new inspection standards can be met. As an FRA, it’s not enough just to say that you’re not qualified to do a facade inspection; You need to facilitate the full range of mandated checks, so it makes sense to work with BAFE 2005-certified surveyors and engineers.

In terms of prioritising buildings in most need, all building managers are going to be rushing to secure the full assessments and ensure their buildings comply. As an industry, we should be looking to ensure that the most urgent buildings are inspected first, and that is most likely to mean older high-rise blocks in the mould of Grenfell, where a return to ‘Stay Put’, albeit with a full BS8629 system in place, must surely be the priority.

Moving Forward

The FSA is not the end of the Grenfell story, but it is perhaps the end of the beginning. This is a problem that was 30 years in the making, and it’s going to take 20 years to fix. It’s all very well to make RPs legally accountable for inspections, but it’s still up to the fire industry to ensure they are undertaken properly and professionally.

So, let’s get our heads together and get this done. I know I won’t be working in this industry by the time the Grenfell story is concluded, but it’s up to people like me, and many others who will hopefully read this, to put the right building blocks in place and begin the process of putting things right. The Fire Safety Act may be imperfect, but at least it shows us the direction we need to be heading in.

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