Security market analyst

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Hunter Seymour is a security market analyst with expertise in both the fire and security markets.
March 23, 2020

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What does the coronavirus mean for the fire safety sector?

Hunter Seymour explores how the fire safety sector, from firefighters to facility management, is reacting to the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.

For risk management professionals the Coronavirus Emergency has prompted myriad concerns to seek out practical solutions on the hoof in a fast-moving national crisis, both on a micro level and a macro level. Informed grassroots pragmatism aside, however, we should be reminded that for more than a decade the NFCC (National Fire Chiefs Council) has been developing their strategic intentions for the fire and rescue services in the event of a flu pandemic.

For those wanting to know more about fire safety personnel and ‘critical worker’ status, we’ve been following the FIA’s live updates, here. 

Emergency preparedness for such a crisis as this, of course, has been a dominant responsibility of the Cabinet Office Civil Contingencies Secretariat from which stems the framework for National Resilience to advise community planners, local emergency responders and local business continuity plans. So, too, the British armed services has its own dedicated DFR (Defence, Fire and Rescue) – a single, integrated, regionally based fire risk management organisation.

These are the national strategists. At the micro level of community safety, which concerns all hands-on risk management practitioners at the workface, the following topical viewpoints will be found, we trust, instructive.

PPE effectiveness against coronavirus

The NFCC restates the Government’s objective to deploy phased actions to ‘Contain’, ‘Delay’ and ‘Mitigate’ any COVID-19 outbreak. Specifically, referring to Coronavirus-related duties for Fire and Rescue Services, the NFCC emphasises that: “To prevent the impact of fire and other emergencies on our communities, we will adopt a risk-based approach to prevention. Very high risk interventions (Home Safety Checks/Safe and Well Visits) will continue based on a suitable and sufficient risk assessment.”


Such risk assessments raise the pressing question of the provision of suitable PPE to meet the demands of the virus outbreaks, particularly those impermeable Hazmat protective suits designed to defeat Hazardous Materials (Hazmat), such as harmful airborne microorganisms (aerosols).

Commenting on the current COVID-19 crisis, a leading specialist adviser on Hazardous Materials and National Incident Liaison, Bob Hark, a Director of Hazmat Training Ltd, says: “Fire Services have a number of PPE ensembles available to them. For example, gas tight chemical protection suits, liquid-tight suits, breathing apparatus, particulate respirators, etc.”

The wearing of full firefighting fire kit and breathing apparatus is one such ensemble. He continues: “It is suitable for a wide range of hazardous materials incidents. It provides a much higher level of protection against respiratory hazards such as viruses than surgical masks or particulate filter respirators. Structural firefighting kit is designed to be resistant to chemical liquids and aerosols and therefore offers very good protection when dealing with people infected with COVID-19. The fact that NHS-style PPE cannot be worn whilst using this ensemble is not a safety issue.”

Risk Assessments in Contagion Zones

The gravity of contagion for frontline professionals – whether representatives of public services or the private sector – may be gauged by Bob’s additional remarks: “Firefighters still need to use the social distancing (2m separation) and hand-washing protocols as a minimum. Obviously in an emergency to save life these would have to be risk assessed, but this is a complicated issue. The main point to raise is that even if the NHS tells us there is only a small/unknown risk of human transmission of the virus between infection and people showing symptoms (incubation period), firefighters still need to take extra care especially with vulnerable people.

“The UK Fire and Rescue Services are well trained and equipped to deal with a wide range of hazardous environments – not just fires. All firefighters are trained to deal with emergencies involving hazardous materials. Coronavirus is simply one form of hazardous materials which is categorised generically under the term Biohazards/Infectious Substances. The additional work that Local Resilience Forums have done in preparing for a flu pandemic only further strengthens my opinion that generally the UK Fire Services are well prepared for the current COVID-19 emergency.”

Measures to mitigate risk

Until such a virus outbreak as COVID-19 only specialist civil contingency professionals have examined matters that now demand the attention of more general risk management. In an epidemic of this scale the risks of contamination from respiratory secretions are many. Operational protective routines must be disciplined with due regard for hazards, such as the multiple use of oxygen masks; one-way mouth-to-mouth resuscitation devices; the use an Ambubag or a similar device to transport the deceased; additional hygiene precautions for the removal of disposable PPE, and more.

Above all else, service providers must observe strict hand hygiene and respiratory protocols. These considerations, together with guidelines under the RRFSO (Regulatory Reform Fire Safety Order), must be part of your Contingency Action Plan, with additional vigilance in accordance with the UK Government’s current emergency measures.

Fire associations seek safeguards

The Fire Industry Association (FIA) has practical advice to risk management contractors as to their maintaining compliance with RRFSO directives. It commented: “A fire industry professional will know when service and maintenance work should be performed over a set period of time to comply with fire safety regulations, yet problems can emerge when contractors are not permitted access on-site due to coronavirus safeguards.

“Our advice is to explain clearly to the client that this is their decision not to allow you to complete the scheduled work, and it is the role of the premises’ management (Responsible Person or Duty Holder dependant on location) to ensure they fulfil their fire safety obligations. If access permission is still not granted, you should document timings and communications to use later as evidence (should it be needed) that you have acted responsibly for your clients.”

Clearly the documenting of reasons for involuntary non-compliance to Fire Regs is an essential safeguard against the litigious and reputational damage. Similarly, in these exceptional times, scrupulous regard should be paid to the paper trail of traceability for RRFSO compliance when reliant on remote monitoring.

In addition, those working in the fire sector have been identified as key workers, as reported by the FIA, which extends to all individuals actively working to improve public fire safety.

Key worker status for security professionals 

Cities under lockdown – risk upgraded

That London has been singled out to be ahead of the curve as a contagion hotspot highlights the risks of the pandemic escalating due to widespread defiance of social distancing. The London Fire Brigade has responded to these fears by stating: “The risk [of an epidemic] was re-rated in January and is now at level 6. It is likely to be re-rated again soon. Our business continuity arrangements were stood up in January and have been scaled up as the pandemic has developed. The Brigade has contingency plans in place which are constantly being monitored and we’re confident that we can maintain a good level of service to London despite the challenges COVID-19 may present.”

Corporate self-preservation

From the Facilities Management sector also comes sound survivalist advice to prepare for the unthinkable: appoint gatekeepers to guard your business interests by assigning an action group empowered to be key decision-takers as a cadre of successors in response to crisis developments.


It goes without saying that responsible management demands the closest scrutiny of your business continuity insurance for those small-print clauses relating to phenomena such as Coronvirus for absolute certainty as to your obligations and liabilities under employment law. For example, as risk management professionals, if you are permitted access to a potential contagion site, the Government’s appropriate Coronavirus guidance must be closely followed to ensure you are not unnecessarily increasing risk to anyone in the premises or yourselves.

Boot strength to boost first responders

With the news that the Ministry of Defence is to double the size of the military’s civil contingency unit with the ‘boot strength’ to create a 20,000-strong COVID-19 support force engaging with a network of community hubs, it is hoped that support for our Fire and Rescue services is not ignored.

Currently, DFR (the Defence Fire and Rescue Service) has a capability consistent with local authority FRS standards. DFR is a regionally based fire risk management organisation that claims functional control over 80 fire stations, three service delivery offices and four fire training centres, with over 2,000 personnel. In addition, DFR military personnel are required to provide fire and rescue capabilities under active service conditions as a continually evolving capability. It remains to be seen, of course, whether the Coronavirus Crisis becomes so acute as to divert these specialists from their primary aim, which is the state of readiness to protect MoD personnel and assets and to deploy to operational theatres of defence.

A unique reality

As this brief overview of the crisis indicates, the conflicts inherent in any national Emergency Action Plans are best demonstrated by the sombre conclusions following the Manchester Arena tragedy in 2017:

“As this report repeatedly makes clear, there is a danger of inflexibility in applying a theoretical response rather than responding to the unique reality every incident poses. This can lead frontline responders to make judgements that might be right on paper but wrong in practice . . .”

Let us hope that joined-up thinking between all public safety professionals will prevail.

The Future of Fire Safety: download the eBook

Is the fire protection industry adapting to the post-Grenfell reality fast enough? At FIREX International 2019, Europe's only dedicated fire safety event, some of the world's leading fire safety experts covered this theme. This eBook covers the key insights from those discussions on the developments shaping the profession, with topics including:

  • Grenfell Inquiry must yield “bedrock change” – and soon
  • After Grenfell: Jonathan O’Neill OBE on how austerity and policy “on the hoof” are hampering progress
  • Hackitt’s Golden Thread: Fire, facilities and building safety
  • Fire safety community has to “get on board” with technological changes

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Kevin Close
Kevin Close
March 26, 2020 11:34 am

Can we get the Home Office to confirm that fire risk assessment, fire alarm testing, maintenance and repair is classed as “essential” work and that the requirements of the Fire Safety Order still apply? What is wrong with you, are you quite happy to potentially spread this virus all over a building and then take it home via what method of transport or petrol station you visit. It is irrelevant what PPE you wear, if gloves then after every door handle or button would have to be cleaned, are you going to completely change all outer clothing after every visit,… Read more »

James Moore
March 26, 2020 12:01 pm
Reply to  Kevin Close

Hi Kevin, from what we understand the FIA and other associations are currently looking into as many of your points as possible. We’re trying to keep up with the ongoing changes in the article here –

Out here
Out here
March 26, 2020 8:37 pm
Reply to  Kevin Close

I would like some clarification on this as well. I have 142 communal alarms to test each week. Lots of traveling around and potentially spreading virus. Everything you said above is what I am concerned about and have raised my concerns several times.

James Moore
March 27, 2020 9:21 am
Reply to  Out here

Hi, thanks for the comment and totally appreciate the concerns both of you, and many others have. While we only report on the news as best we can, we’re currently following this page from the FIA regarding ‘key’ or ‘critical’ worker status:

Out here
Out here
March 31, 2020 9:26 am
Reply to  James Moore

Hi. The link is not working. I only test but don’t respond to failures. Total grey area for me.

Mr John Mcpherson
Mr John Mcpherson
April 1, 2020 10:18 am

Can fire safety officer still allowed to come in my block of flats

Alex Hales
Alex Hales
December 11, 2020 9:52 am

It is worth noting that you should always assess the risks in how they specifically relate to your business, think about factors such as how many visitors you get, whether they are known to you.


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