Alan Cox

Fire-safety consultant

Author Bio ▼

Alan started his fire and safety career with Warwick County Fire Service in 1963 and served as both an Operational and Fire Safety Inspecting Officer. In 1976 he transferred to the West Midlands Fire Service until 1978 when he moved to the NHS as the District Fire Safety Officer for West Birmingham Health Authority where he was also the West Midlands Regional Health Authority Fire Advisor. During his NHS career he worked and studied for six months in the USA looking at different approaches to fire safety. He was also responsible for developing a computerized hospital fire evacuation program that was used in many major hospitals. In 1994 Alan moved to HSBC as its Senior Fire and Safety Officer responsible for the 80 countries in which the bank had a presence. During his career with HSBC he established a global approach to fire safety, organized many international fire and safety conferences, and developed a standardized method of protecting computer areas from fire. In 2005 he set up his own Fire and Safety Consultancy. During his career he has published a number of books on fire safety and made many specialist technical videos on subjects such as hospital evacuation, fire protection of electronic data protection areas, fire doors, and mail room safety. He has been awarded a Brooking NHS Travel Fellowship, Rospa Safety Professional of the Year (twice), FPA Premier Fire Safety Award, and The Prime Minister's Quality Initiative. He also contributes to many fire and safety journals including Fire, IOSH, Fire Surveyor, and Health and Safety Journal. He is a fully qualified Fire Service Inspecting Officer, member of the International Institute of Risk and Safety Managers (MIIRSM), Tech IOSH, and Qualified Fire Investigator. Alan has advised many large companies including the National Trust, Hospital Corporation of America (HCA), Kings College, Cambridge, Briton Hardware, BUPA, British Antarctic Survey Expedition, Chubb, Central Television, BBC, Radisson SAS, and the Falkland Islands Police.
August 13, 2014

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Is the Fire Service the Right Enforcement Authority?

I’ve heard this question many times during my career.

In 1986 I wrote an article in Fire Surveyor entitled Fire Legislation – Is the Fire Service the Right Enforcement Authority?

Expecting the article to be controversial I was pleasantly surprised at the level of support it attracted from many eminent people in the profession, including a retired HM Inspector of Fire Services who wrote: “I think that Mr Cox was not only correct but courageous to voice his reservations about the suitability of the present-day fire service to perform these duties.

“The faults which have developed appear in many respects to be consequences of the complex task which the service has been required to do and the unsuitable means with which they have been provided to do it.

“With the will to acknowledge the need for change it should be possible to ensure that the question asked by Mr Cox is not raised seriously again. We will then owe him more than a word of gratitude?”

Unfortunately, I now find myself in a position where I have to raise the question again.

Fire door held open

Fire door held open

Disturbing experience

A few weeks ago I stayed in a hotel in the North of England.

While the stay was quite enjoyable my initial inspection of escape routes revealed some disturbing problems: fire doors that wouldn’t close, that were wedged open, left open and poorly upgraded together with a poorly protected external fire escape, out-of-date PAT and extinguisher testing and poor electrical wiring, to name a few.

As I could see that some upgrading work was in progress I decided to discuss the problems with the owners, who indicated that they had purchased the property about 12 months ago and that the local fire officer had entered the building as part of the due diligence process.

Regarding the wedged-open fire doors the proprietors thought that the easiest option was to remove the ‘Fire Door – Keep Shut’ signs, which I strongly advised against.

On my return home I sent the owners a list of identified problems together with photographs but didn’t receive acknowledgement – let alone reply.

I sent a copy of my 11-page report to the fire service, which acknowledged receipt saying: “Thank you for your communication regarding the above premises. The Fire & Rescue Service takes all concerns for fire safety seriously. The matter you raised in your letter of 11th July 2014 will be investigated and appropriate action taken.”

Feeling this wasn’t a very professional reply for a fairly comprehensive report I wrote back asking if they considered the building up to RRO standards. They replied: “If you require any further information or documentation this will be dealt with by Headquarters through a freedom of information request.”

Fire door held open by Gong

Fire door held open by gong

Clearly this report came from someone who understood fire safety and was not simply a list of unfounded allegations. I believe that any reasonable complaint deserves an explanation as to whether or not the comments are justified and what action will be taken.

If you purchased a faulty product you would not expect Trading Standards to simply promise investigation without informing you of the outcome, whether you submit a Freedom of Information request or not. So why should booking a hotel be any different?

Might the fire service’s involvement in enforcement procedure make them nervous about incriminating their service? Because if they agreed with my findings they may find it difficult to explain the problems I had identified?

A look at the National Enforcement Register reveals that the fire service inspected the premises in December 2012 and issued an enforcement notice (EN) that should have covered many items I identified. So was the EN correctly complied with and was it correct?

From my observations some items appeared to have met the standard implemented under the previous legislation.

Unprotected glazing to external fire escape

Unprotected glazing to external fire escape

Not all fire services handle complaints in this way and some produce professional responses, but the vast majority appears to adopt this “no comment attitude”, which will discourage complaints and in my view is unprofessional and impedes progress in fire safety. Perhaps the fire services would like to explain why they take this action?

Find out how fire authorities dealt with my comments on other hotels.

Competence

Much has been written recently about this subject in relation to persons involved in assessing buildings for fire safety. But what about assessors employed by the fire services – are they competent, and if so, how do we know they meet the expected standard?

Do we know what the expected standard is? Do we know how it is monitored and assessed or do we just take it for granted that because they are employed by a fire authority, they must be competent?

If we accept this statement are we simply not burying our heads in the sand and just pursuing easy targets? Or should we not have a more open, honest and transparent fire service willing to be part of the overall solution rather than part of the problem?

Many problems identified in my original article are still apparent in buildings I look at today and clearly meet standards accepted under previous legislation. In many cases owners show me their old fire certificate and inform me that nothing has changed and as it was it issued by the Fire Authority it must be right – which actually isn’t always the case.

It’s also difficult to inform someone that standards that were applicable some years ago are not acceptable today, regardless of what the fire certificate states.

So it is more difficult if an independent assessor tries to get something improved if the fire authority has recently visited and said nothing to the contrary. Some assessors are also unable to identify problems with old fire certificates and simply assume that if nothing has changed, it must be OK.

Storage in staircase

Storage in staircase

Fire investigation

Anyone who has read my article on the Penhallow Hotel Fire

will know that one of the questions I raised was: “Should fire services be responsible for investigating fatal fires where they have been responsible for enforcement? In my opinion, it is now time to move forward to a system where in these circumstances the investigation is carried out by an independent body.”

Cornwall Fire and Rescue Service responded as follows: “Whilst in principle the point raised by Mr Cox may be worthy of debate, we do not believe in the case of the Penhallow Hotel there were any conflicts of interest, as the hotel had not been subjected to audit under the legislation for which the company were subsequently prosecuted.”

I certainly agree that the subject is worthy of debate but I do not accept that there was no conflict of interest. And if anyone has seen the official report I think they’ll see how many questions remain unanswered.

Fire extinguisher needs servicing

Fire extinguisher needs servicing

I have no problem with the fire services investigating small fires where there has been no loss of life or serious casualties, but can it be right that the fire service investigate serious incidents where they have inspected and agreed the standard of fire safety?

This did not work in the police service and does not work in the fire service. To improve the situation I think we need an independent organisation similar to the IPCC (Independent Police Complaints Commission) to oversee the situation and make it more open, honest and transparent.

Need for a Fire Engineering Inspectorate

In response to my article an eminent fire consultant wrote an interesting piece entitled The Need for a Fire Engineering Inspectorate. It was pointed out that the principal requirements of the legislation were:

  • Adequate means of escape
  • Adequate means to ensure escape routes can be used when required
  • Adequate means for giving warning
  • Adequate means for fighting fire

The fire consultant also mentioned that three of these four requirements involve mechanical or electrical engineering and that fireman are not engineers.

“The logic of requiring firefighters to enforce fire safety legislation, taken to its ultimate, implies that security systems should be commissioned by policemen, that first aiders and ambulance men should enforce the Health and Safety at Work Act etc, because they have seen lots of blood and that car braking and steering systems should be designed or tested by motorway policemen with ample accident experience.

“Surely the fire service should open its mind a little more to the role of engineers if it is to maintain credibility in today’s world,” he concluded. “The skilled fire fighter and engineer can work in liaison to contribute to each other’s knowledge so that the public may experience the greatest benefit.

“The fire service should not be afraid to relinquish, if required, certain roles merely because they have tradionally lain within the scope of the service. A master of one skill is admired much more than a poor man’s jack of all trades.”

Conclusion

Thirty years on from my initial article and the legislation has changed together with responsibility for fire safety, but the UK still appears to suffer from many of the same problems – so have we moved forward?

Clearly, some things have changed and in theory, putting the responsibility on the owner/occupier is a good thing – but does this work in practice? In some companies and organisations it does, but not, I believe, in the vast majority.

This comes down to how well the legislation is enforced and compliance is assessed. Together with how serious life-loss fires are investigated, this must be completely reassessed if we’re to reach a cost-effective, open and transparent level of fire safety.

I concluded my original article with the following statement, which I still feel merits consideration: “It is a little pointless improving the medicine if the doctor is not well trained and able to identify the illness. Perhaps now is the time to look at the alternative method of enforcement”.

 

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36 Comments on "Is the Fire Service the Right Enforcement Authority?"

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George Northey
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We are a BAFE SP203-1 registered company, now thinking we are like lions without any teeth, anyone can install fire alarm systems rightly or wrongly and who really cares if its installed without any reference to the British standards, who checks the local fire service,

We should be like gas engineers carrying a gas safe certificate, there are plenty of people who will take on a unqualified installer and prosecute, why cant it be the same with Fire Alarms.

Steve Skarratt
Guest
As an organisation that delivers training to both FRS and non FRS in Fire Risk Assessment and Enforcement of the same, we are fortunate to see both sides. Without wishing to detract from Alan’s article, and without showing favour to either perspective, I would like to highlight  that Alan’s questions: “But what about assessors employed by the fire services – are they competent, and if so, how do we know they meet the expected standard? Do we know what the expected standard is? Do we know how it is monitored and assessed or do we just take it for granted… Read more »
Dave Sibert
Guest
A very interesting article that covers a wide range of issues – most of which I have a great deal of sympathy with.  I’d like to write a response at least as long to discuss all of the matters raised but I will limit myself to only one or two. This isn’t a criticism of Mr Cox, but I note in the conclusion that he mentions the popular statement that the Fire Safety Order ‘put the responsibility on the owner/occupier’. The thing is, virtually every responsibility was always on the owner/occupier.  I don’t remember a fire officer ever being prosecuted… Read more »
RichardBaker1
Guest
Sorry to say that the UK is on course for a major loss of life if we do not move away from self assessment – it is NOT working.  Have been in so many properties including fire and police buildings that are appalling fire safety wise. Sorry, but Fire Service fire safety officers are not being taught properly nor in most cases are non service people.  The FSO was a cost saving exercise to get rid of trained fire safety officers in the fire service and self assessment is really a joke, the news keeps pointing out the failures even… Read more »
Fireofficer1
Guest
There are obvious problems with the fire service as an enforcement authority most of which could be easily and simply addressed if they were openly exposed from the inside and there was a willingness to address them but unfortunately from my experience this is not currently the case.  As a current enforcement officer with a range of experience I would be the first to admit that  firefighters are not engineers and nor do they all have the capacity to become so.  However, this level of training is not always required and there are in fact some exceptional enforcement officers with… Read more »
Activatefire
Guest
I am going to keep this as brief as possible. I work in the fire safety industry and recently visited a licensed bar which is in a listed building it is on the second floor has a single direction means of escape via a stone spiral staircase, in my experience this just does not work!!!! On speaking to the owner I was told the Fire Service had ok’d it and that they had suggested a maximum occupation of 120-130.  I spoke to the enforcing officer who had dealt with the premises and was told that the high levels of detection… Read more »
Dave Sibert
Guest
I don’t think it is the case that self assessment has failed (RichardBaker1).  I agree with Fireofficer1 that employees of fire and rescue services are the best people to enforce fire safety legislation, but they are not being invested in properly.  There is no career path in fire safety enforcement in many services (so there is a lack of motivation for personal development in the subject) and training is patchy to say the least. Self assessment would work fine if there were many more of the exceptional enforcement officers that Fireofficer1 mentioned who could examine self assessments and help responsible… Read more »
Simon Ince
Guest
The FRS is indeed the best organisation to enforce the fire safety order, as they are the people who deal with the aftermath of fire. If fighting fires and taking out dead bodies doesn’t focus your mind on fire safety nothing will. However, as has been said below; resource, training and funding have all been slashed over many years which has the knock on effect mentioned by others. The shift in enforcement now is well established to a softly, softly education and advice role with only the worst of the worst offenders facing prosecution, as the force cannot afford to… Read more »
Jon Butt
Guest
This argument will roll on and on but will only be taken seriously by anyone in authority when a large loss of life occurs in a fire….. sadly. I have never worked in the Fire and Rescue Service but have a huge amount of respect for their bravery and dedication. However, I think that any talk of taking responsibilities away from the FRS will have the Unions calling “foul” and starting another, unnecessary argument. And, then the standard talk of cutbacks, budget deficiencies, lack of resources comes out. Many companies, organisations and people have faced money shortfalls in recent years… Read more »
Alan Cox
Guest
Simon, It is interesting to note that one aspect of your comments about firefighters being the best people to enforce fire legislation was the subject of a fire consultant’s reply to my original article. I quote “I am amazed that the old argument that one needs to have inhaled smoke to understand fire behaviour should still be trotted out.  The logic of requiring fire fighters to enforce fire safety legislation, taken to its ultimate, implies that security systems should be commissioned by policeman, that first aiders and ambulance men should enforce the Health and Safety at Work Act because they… Read more »
Sunnyguy365
Guest
I have to disagree with Mr Cox’s comments regarding the reply he received from the local fire authority. I believe that the reply he received was of consumate professionalism and he has to remember that the organisation are the enforcing agency and to discuss any findings they have as an organisation, would be unprofessional as they have a responsibility of confidentiality to the organisations they have carried out inspections; upon. The Fire Authority were right in their further reply and asking Mr Cox to submit a freedom of information request to their HQ. Depending on the contents of any information… Read more »
Alan Cox
Guest

Sunnyguy365 If this is true – why don’t all FRS act the same way? Some FRS don’t even bother to acknowledge receipt and the reply that I received from one FRS after 2 reminders stated “I have passed your email on to a member of our Fire Protection Team hopefully someone will make contact with you soon.” 
Do you consider this very professional where someone states “hopefully” – because I have not heard anything yet.

Dave Sibert
Guest
I hear your argument about putting out fires doesn’t make you a good enforcement officer.  But services don’t just rely on firefighting experience when they appoint enforcement officers.  The ‘firefighters’ who enforce fire safety legislation these days come from three groups; (1) those who have been transferred from fire fighting duties into enforcement duties (a.k.a. “grey book staff”); (2) people who are employed directly ‘off the street’ as enforcement officers and (a.k.a. “green book staff”); (3) retired “grey book” enforcement officers re-employed on “green book” contracts. There aren’t enough of these people, and in some services their training is questionable,… Read more »
Simon Ince
Guest
Hi Alan As you so correctly say that is only one aspect of the reasons why they are the best enforcing option. If we flip this and say are the police the best enforcing authority for UK law?  Not many people would argue against them being the enforcers. If they did I would point out the debacle at the London Olympics where private security failed for the sake of profit to do the job they should have done. I agree with many of your points Alan but you fail to address the real issue resource, training and funding; it isn’t the service… Read more »
Sunnyguy365
Guest

Alan, I cannot answer for other FRS, I can only reply to you using my own professional and moral compass. If I were to receive a report on my desk that was eleven pages long then I would most definitely reply and if I had a telephone number as well, I would definitely call that person with the intention of having a preliminary conversation prior to carrying out an inspection, as the report for all intent and purpose(on reflection), is tantamount to a complaint and I have a professional responsibility to respond to such.

Divenglide
Guest
Fortunately a great deal more evidence than that provided here is required to convince most impartial observers. There is a great deal more to fire safety than a few fire doors here and there that might not close perfectly or because the telephone does not have 999 written on it (See Mr Cox’s report on other hotels). It is fortunate that Fire Authorities do not demonstrate the level of pedantry demonstrated here lest they be cast of as overly bureacratic and officious regulators. Any large body of individuals will display varying approaches and competence including the body that is fire engineers and consultants.… Read more »
Alan Cox
Guest

Sunnyguy365
Thanks for your comment which is exactly what I would have expected and done myself – sadly some FRS cannot be bothered which is a great pity.

Alan Cox
Guest
Divenglide I think that you need to look at the bigger picture because if you look at my reports you will see a lot more than wedged open fire doors and no instructions for dialling 999 – generally, if that was the case I would simply make the comments to the owner or manager and leave it at that. Unfortunately, the ones that I have highlighted are some of the properties that are disregarding fire safety in many areas and not just the areas that you have highlighted. Also you should be aware that in some properties I am not… Read more »
Alan Cox
Guest
Dave Sibert Dave, I never approached the issuing of Fire Certificates as a “copying and pasting standard paragraphs” exercise and I was always aware of the need to be “reasonable in the circumstances of the case “in all my decisions and the members of our section would discuss individual problems as a team in the effort to apply the best solution. Obviously, I am aware that this did happen but not something that I approved of. I take your point about the shifting of responsibility but when the FRS issued a Fire Certificate that was their legal interpretation of ”… Read more »
Alan Cox
Guest
Dave Sibert Dave, That was not my argument –  it was in an article about the Need for a Fire Engineering Inspectorate which was published after my item. One of the proposals put forward in the article was as follows, ” There is a high technical ability, in for instance, the Health and Safety Executive which, in an extended form, could surely undertake the role of policing fire safety standards, as has been suggested. This at first seems a radical proposal but all of us in the fire world, myself included, can too easily forget that fire safety is only… Read more »
Alan Cox
Guest
Activatefire An interesting example and from what you have described I would be concerned about the situation. Could I ask if the FRS replied to your concerns verbally or in writing? One of the problems that I raised on the BBC Inside Out Investigation into the Penhallow Hotel Fire was that they relied on verbal comments too much without confirming these in writing – interesting that they have now changed this procedure. Perhaps, if you don’t have it in writing you should request it – I find that they are very reluctant to confirm these situations in writing because they… Read more »
Activatefire
Guest

Their comments were verbal only and I was not really comfortable with this. I have asked a colleague to visit the premises to get his take on it because I do not feel I can just accept this, my thoughts were that if he is of the same opinion then I would make my concerns more formal.

Alan Cox
Guest

I am pleased that you are prepared to go to these lengths because of your concern. If more people were prepared to put pen to paper and bring these things out into the open we would all have a better understanding of the problems that are facing us all. Well done.

Alan Cox
Guest
Thanks for being so open and honest and I certainly agree that the way that fire safety is going at present leaves a lot to be desired. Unfortunately, we appear to be stuck with this system because of Europe and I don’t see it changing in the near future. It is interesting that the system appears to work in some countries in the EU – if you look at countries like Germany you certainly don’t see the problems there that you see in the UK and from my discussions with hotel owners there it appears to come down to the… Read more »
5tuart
Guest
Enforcement for fire safety under the current regulations was originally a two horse race between the Health and Safety Executive and Fire Authority, with the Fire Authority winning the race. What we have now is a Fire Authority strapped for cash trying to make cuts in the hope they do not go over there budget, enforcing fire safety standards can only be effective where there are competent persons available with the tools to do the job. I see below a few raw nerves have been touched and they are fire service personnel no doubt defending what they feel so passionately… Read more »
Alan Cox
Guest

Fireofficer1
One aspect that was discussed following my original article was a possibility of using the people with the skills and experience that you have mentioned together with other people in the profession including fire engineers with relevant experience and others with specific skills in the trade. The important thing which you have touched on and was also proposed  at that time was moving the management away from the FRS because this was seen as the “pinch point” for the profession and I think that you have also illustrated this very well.

Alan Cox
Guest
Stuart, Changing the legislation was supposed to get rid of “tombstone legislation” as you refer to and by involving the owners make it more inclusive as well as fitting in with other safety legislation and European requirements but I don’t really think that this has worked in the UK in respect of fire safety. What I think is interesting is that it has worked in some countries such as Germany, so what does that tell us? Obviously, that the principle can work, but in needs better enforcement. I have just returned from a weekend break in a hotel and guess… Read more »
5tuart
Guest

Alan Cox 

If you wish to give the public the fire standard they deserve, then you have a duty of care to report the hotel to the appropriate authority and expect feedback.
We are at this time, like all other industry, dependant on  “whistle blowers” to force standards that are allegedly required by legislation and only complied with by a few.

Alan Cox
Guest
5tuart Alan Cox I was intending to report these problems but I do not expect any feedback because there are only a very few FRS that do so. I do find this attitude quite poor when you consider that we are all trying to achieve the same results and as you quite rightly point out “I have a duty of care to report the hotel.” I usually have to serve a FOI notice to get any response and even then a lot of FRS just quote that they informed the RP to comply with the RRO as required – which is… Read more »
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[…] An interesting article by Alan Cox, Fire and Safety Consultant -Is the Fire Service the Right Enforcement Authority? […]

Alan Cox
Guest
5tuart Alan Cox Stuart, This is the FOI request that I received in respect of the hotel in my article: “With reference to your Freedom of Information request received 25th July 2014 where you asked for several pieces of information, please see the answers below: “On the 10th July I sent you a copy of a report that I had made in relation to Fire Safety at ………………. following my stay there.” Q1.  “I require to know what action that you took in relation to my report” A1.  Following receipt of your report the following took place: 11th July 2014 –… Read more »
Alan Cox
Guest

George Northey
George,
Do you have any additional thoughts on how this should work and how it should be policed?
Should the fire service only accept systems installed by registered companies and who would look after the registration?
Should insurance companies only accept systems installed by registered companies?
Obviously, there is a cost to registration – how would small companies cover this cost?

Alan Cox
Guest

George Northey
George,
I have just had a thought – have you made your comments in respect of http://standardsdevelopment.bsigroup.com/Home/Project/201401027 – I sit on the committee that has drafted this standard and as it is now out for public comment you may wish to raise this issue.

webber80
Guest

I’ve noticed that ‘freedom of information’ requests are often made by semi-retired people or journalists who see their enquiry as more important than the recipient’s day-to-day work.

Alan Cox
Guest
webber80 I am not sure what point that your making here – is it that you feel that the FOI is something that wastes the recipients time and is therefore a waste of time? And I cannot see what relevance there is in identifying journalists and semi retired people – perhaps you could explain your comments in a little more detail. I certainly work a lot with journalists and this is a valuable tool for them as it is for me and I would prefer not to have to use it but unfortunately many organisations like the FRS are not… Read more »
Alan Cox
Guest
Dave, If you look at the Fire Research Station’s Report of their investigation of the fire – the objectives of the investigation were to investigate the following: 1. The ignition of the rubbish 2. The growth of fire in the concealed space beneath the timbers 3. the spread of flames from the fire beneath the timbers to a growing fire above the timbers 4. The spread of smoke and flames to and subsequently beneath the roof with heat radiation back to combustibles at floor level 5. The effects of the fire on the people in the grandstand 6. The possible… Read more »
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