Ben Bradford

Managing Director, BB7 Fire Limited

Author Bio ▼

Holding duel professional status as both a Chartered Engineer and Chartered Surveyor, Ben Bradford is the founder and Managing Director of the renowned, BB7 Fire Risk & Resilience consultants. He has chaired the FIA Fire Risk Assessment Council's Professional Standards Working Group for almost six years and was a founding member of the Fire Engineering Council. As the Principle author of PAS 7: Fire Risk Management Systems Specification from the British Standards Institution, Ben is particularly interested in organizational fire risk management strategy and operational challenges.
March 12, 2014

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The Mystery of the Missing Fire Strategies

Ben Bradford 2Our firm – BB7 – assists architects and developers alike with independent fire engineering advice during the design and construction of new buildings, but we also undertake thousands of fire-risk assessments.

Rarely are we so fortuitous to receive a bespoke building fire strategy before undertaking an assessment, let alone an as-built fire strategy.

Many buildings we undertake fire risk assessments on are complex and were built in the last decade or two. Strategy documents were probably prepared as part of the design process.

Where do fire strategies go? The same place as odd socks? Is there a Bermuda Triangle for strategies? Might they turn up with Lord Lucan?

It’s a legal requirement of the Building Regulations 2010, Regulation 38, that “The person carrying out the work shall give fire safety information to the responsible person not later than the date of completion of the work, or the date of occupation of the building or extension, whichever is the earlier.”

For those unfamiliar with the term ‘Responsible person’ the meaning is detailed in Article (3) of the Regulatory Reform (fire safety) Order 2005.

Haphazard enforcement

There are two credible hypotheses about the missing-strategy mystery: either the ‘responsible person’ or duty holder has misplaced the information, or enforcement of this requirement is haphazard at best, inconsistent at worst, and simply isn’t being enforced.Print

The first explanation is plausible and symptomatic of a management failing that may be considered when undertaking the fire risk assessment required under Article (9) of the FSO.

But many fire engineers can provide anecdotal evidence substantiating the latter explanation too. The problem may stem from the building-control process, which building control bodies are apparently not enforcing consistently.

A few pointed articles in industry publications have identified this problem, but in fairness to building control professionals we should acknowledge that the requirement states: “The person carrying out the work shall give fire safety information to the responsible person” – not to the Building Control Body”.

But another issue must be resolved: a lack of clarity about when a fire strategy is required and under-appreciation of the benefits of as-built fire strategies for building refurbishments or even general maintenance. It is often invaluable to have access to original design assumptions with regard to fire safety.

Given the increase in performance-based design, most new schemes now contain an element of fire engineering. Fire-engineered buildings may require a level of management over and above a code-compliant building, although even code-compliant buildings can require a high degree of management.

Take, for example, a code-compliant atrium building, hospital or even residential block of flats with smoke control via mechanical shafts. The fire safety manager or other duty holder in the relevant organisation will be tasked with managing and maintain fire safety measures when the building is transferred to keep the building operating in the intended manner throughout the building lifecycle.

A fire safety manager is rarely a competent fire engineer, let alone party to the design principles that guided the building’s construction. Years hence the he or she may puzzle over whether the atria’s glazing is fire-resisting or simply laminated.

They may be asked whether the long-throw sprinkler system is essential to the strategy because its replacement or reinstatement costs a five-figure sum. Without the original strategy how are they supposed to know?

Now imagine a fire-engineered building with a fire time that has been reduced from 120 to 90 minutes and extended travel distances on the floor plates, agreed on the basis of a compensatory feature such as sprinklers.

Faced with a refurbishment of two floors the fire-safety manager must understand the risk posed by the sprinkler system’s isolation.  If the fire strategy has been lost in the mists of time – or simply does not exist – then they’re stumped.

So when is a fire strategy required?

Appendix G in the current national guidance offers a basic insight into the required level of detail for fire safety information and Regulation 38. The legal requirement clearly states the term “relevant building”, to which the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 applies, or will apply, after the completion of building work.

For clarity the appendix divides this into ‘simple buildings’ and ‘complex buildings’, both of which may fall within the scope of the FSO.

What exactly constitutes a simple building?

A simple building cannot be defined easily. A ‘code-compliant’ shopping mall, hospital or airport terminal, for example, wouldn’t necessarily be ‘simple’ in terms of fire-safety design or management obligations.

Even a small residential block of flats may be less simple than one first imagines.

For example, imagine a residential building complying with the small, single-stair building criteria. It has two apartments per floor and an open-plan common staircase – that is, there’s no lobby protection between the apartment entrance door and common stairs, therefore requiring an internal- protected hallway separating the accommodation from the stair.

It may be compliant in terms of internal layout but there’s an FSO legal obligation on the ‘Responsible Person’ or their nominated duty-holder to undertake fire-risk assessments periodically within the common parts.

Now, in accordance with the Fire Safety in Purpose-Built Blocks of Flats Guide, this fire-risk assessment may be either type 1,2,3 or 4, so it would be useful for the fire-risk assessor to understand its original design basis.

They must assess the front-entrance doors to the flats and gain access to a sample of flats. What if the resident has made alterations internally and removed fire-safety measures necessary for compliance with Building Regulations and the FSO?

It’s prudent to have a documented fire strategy to help the responsible person or their duty holder meet legal obligations. Commendably the national guidance suggests as-built fire strategy drawings for simple buildings, yet they rarely exist in practice.

Sometimes an as-built fire strategy is useful for so-called ‘simple buildings’.  If a building follows the ‘general approach’ to fire safety design and strictly conforms to Approved Document B it may qualify as a simple building.

But as mentioned above, simply being ‘code compliant’ does not mean all code-compliant buildings are simple in terms of fire strategy. It follows that a building which adopts the ‘advanced approach’ or a ‘fire-engineered’ approach will not be a simple building.

What is a complex building?

As implied in my attempts to define a simple building, complex buildings can include both code-compliant buildings and non-code compliant buildings. National guidance suggests these buildings require a detailed record of the fire-safety strategy and procedures for operating and maintaining fire protection measures to satisfy Regulation 38.

In fact, relatively few building types can now be considered simple buildings with regard to fire safety design. Best practice would suggest that a fire strategy should be submitted as part of the building regulations approval process.

Fire safety information (strategy) and building regulation approval

Our friends in Scotland have already acknowledged this problem and made sensible amendments at government level to ensure that buildings are not issued completion certificates without the submission of necessary fire-safety information.

We believe that building control bodies in England and Wales should issue a standard guidance note to applicants requesting building regulation approval spotlighting the requirement of Regulation 38 and benefits of as-built fire strategies and/or fire strategy drawings.

We also need to provide further guidance on what constitutes simple and complex buildings. It would also help those responsible for managing occupied buildings if an as-built fire strategy and/or fire strategy drawings were submitted to the building control pBody before issuance of a completion certificate.

A new owner at least may be afforded, during the conveyancing process, an insight into the original design intent.  Perhaps it is the legislation that needs amending?

This issue, which will be raised with the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) Professional Group Board for Building Control, presents an opportunity for both the fire engineering profession and the building control profession to work collaboratively for the betterment of fire safety in England and Wales.

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