DEBATE

The Fire Safety Order: Is it fit for purpose?

Adam Bannister

Editor, IFSEC Global

Author Bio ▼

Adam Bannister is editor of IFSEC Global. A former managing editor at Dynamis Online Media Group, he has been at the helm of the UK's leading fire and security publication since 2014.
December 8, 2017

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Fire-safety consultant Alan Cox recently suggested that the overhaul of fire safety regulation overseen by the Labour government 12 years ago might have done more harm than good.

Writing on IFSEC Global, Cox also reviewed the lessons of the Penhallow Hotel blaze – described as “the worst British hotel fire for 50 years” at the time – which took place a decade ago.

He also revisited several other major fires to occur since the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 came into force as well as his undercover inspection of hotels in the South West for the BBC s Inside Out South West programme.

No aspect of fire safety has been overlooked in the debate that has followed the Grenfell Tower fire, regulations included – albeit the focus has principally been on building regulations.

The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 replaced a patchwork of acts passed over several decades and made fire safety a fully risk-assessment-based regime. Prescriptive fire codes were abandoned and responsibility in any one building or site clearly assigned to a single person: the ‘responsible person’.

IFSEC Global approached a number of professionals working in fire safety for their viewpoint on the effectiveness of the Fire Safety Order compared to the previous system – where fire certificates were issued by the fire service under the Fire Precautions Act 1971 – and whether problems could frequently be traced to regulatory rather than human failure.


Frank Hyland, health and safety advisor, Wigan Council

Everyone has a take on how to put things right but deregulation is not one of them

I agree that the FSO has served to improve standards. I work for a local authority undertaking fire risk assessments in schools (approaching 8,000 now), many of which did not have a fire certificate prior to 2006.

I know that the fire safety in them all is much better than it was. We still have a way to go but look at where we have come from.

Safety culture plays a big part too; it goes without saying that buildings with good occupants far outweigh those with good technical systems and poor culture.

We have new buildings designed with compartmentation issues. The building regulations have not failed us but the application of them occasionally goes astray.

We are reliant on building control to get things right – sometimes it may be building control from another authority.

I have always worked closely with our local FRS and our insurers to harmonise standards as best we can. When things go wrong there is usually a complete failure to assess, a failure in the application of standards (or a failure in the attitude test).

Everyone has a take on how to put things right but deregulation is not one of them.


Jim Baker, student and researcher, Science, Technology and Innovation Studies (STIS), University of Edinburgh

If the food hygiene rating scheme incentivises food outlets to improve, perhaps a similar scheme for fire safety would provide a similar incentive

In the UK the regulation of fire safety is being dealt with by a dwindling resource of regulators. There is little prospect of reversing that trend in the current economic and political climate, so it may be time to take a different approach and look at supplementing the regulatory system to make it more effective.

The general public are a huge resource who visit and work in public, commercial, and industrial buildings every day, so perhaps they could be used to supplement the diminishing resource?

Food safety already has a system involving the public that is designed to encourage managers of premises to achieve a higher standard where food is prepared. The Food Standards Agency operates a rating scheme that, following an inspection, results in a score that is displayed in a prominent position to inform prospective customers.

If the food hygiene rating scheme provides an incentive for food outlets to improve because they risk losing custom, perhaps a similar scheme for fire safety would provide a similar incentive.

For example, if fire safety regulations required the duty holder for the premises to rate themselves with regard to self-regulation in fire safety and display that rating in a prominent position, there might be some benefit. Firstly, the absence of a displayed rating score would make it obvious that the duty holder had not fully considered their regulatory responsibilities.

Secondly, a self-awarded score of ‘excellent’ or ‘very good’ would need some defending if challenged. This is where the public get involved. It is they who are being informed so it is giving them the ability to challenge the score if they observe a regulatory breach (for example, a wedged open fire-resisting door).

They might choose to challenge the duty holder directly, they might make a complaint to the regulator, they might make a comment on social media. Such as system could encourage both duty holders and the general public to take more interest in what self-regulation of fire safety means and how it affects everyone’s safety.


John Greenbank, director, Firesafe Solutions (UK)

The fire safety order hasn’t failed – we have failed it!

Since the Grenfell tragedy we’ve seen many individuals and some organisations say the Fire Safety Order has failed and that we should go back to fire certification completed by the Fire Service. Additionally, statements have been made that the fire service are the right people to do fire risk assessments or certificates. I would suggest they are not.

Maybe technical fire safety officers are, but they are a tiny proportion of the fire service and after huge cuts in their departments they’re in no position to take on the huge amount of work being done across the country under the current legislation.

Yes, you could argue that with investment, the departments could be built back up, but that is cloud-cuckoo land. It would take years to train sufficient people into this role (we know, because we’re training people from scratch to be assessors and it literally takes years). This would be a huge expense on the public purse when the country just doesn’t have the money.

Furthermore, why are we saying the Fire Safety Order has failed?  The FSO laid out in law what buildings need assessing, who should be doing it (competent persons) and what should take place if you don’t do it and you put people’s lives at risk (enforcement).

It is not the FSO’s fault that incompetent people have been doing some of the assessing and that we have failed to enforce against these people. Yes, we see examples of enforcement but it is clearly not enough. If you see fewer police on the roads, would you be surprised if you learned there was more speeding and poor driving?

Let’s get behind the perfectly good legislation we have. On our side of the fence we need to train assessors properly and use recognised, quality-assured, third-party accreditation and the fire service needs to sufficiently staff and train their side so they can carry out the audits and enforce against the cowboys.

To conclude, the fire safety order hasn’t failed – we have failed it!


Alan Cox, fire-safety consultant

“Most European countries have more prescriptive fire safety regulations than the UK”

Some interesting comments to my article and thanks to everyone who responded both online and privately.

It was interesting to note the comments about schools, but lets not forget that schools in general were not subject to the Fire Precautions Act 1971, although there may have been parts that were, so it is a little difficult to draw a direct comparison.

I’m sure that if they had been designated they would have improved, although of course, arson still plays a large part of the problem in this area.

If the same buildings/occupancies that were covered in the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order were brought under The Fire precautions Act I am certain that we would not be in the position that we are now. We should also not forget that the reasons for change were given as an opportunity to bring all of our fire safety legislation under one act and also to bring us in line with EU legislation.

I agree that it may be difficult to go back to the old fire certification system. That’s why I proposed a collaborative system involving both the fire service and building control, looking at buildings’ fire safety and responsible person(s), how occupancy works given safety measures installed.

This is similar to the system used in Finland that also gives the fire authority powers to require additional fire safety measures if alterations have taken place.

Most European countries have more prescriptive fire safety regulations than the UK. Leaving the EU now gives us another opportunity to look at what works and what doesn’t.

I think that involving the public would be of great benefit in improving fire safety in many buildings because ‘collaborative working’ has shown many advantages in many areas of everyday life. And after all, fire safety is something that needs to be taken more seriously by all of us.

As a fire profession it is difficult for us to specify a regulatory system that meets everyone’s needs and you only have to look around Europe to see the range of different approaches in place. The message that ours is not working effectively comes from many stakeholders including RIBA, the Coroner into the Lakenhal House Fire, a panel of experts at FIREX 2016 and many respected individuals in the industry.

Interestingly, the Lords Committee stated before the publication of the RRO that they were “concerned that there is a risk that the proposed fire safety regime (based on self-assessment) would not maintain the necessary protection provided by the current fire safety regime (based on fire safety certification)”.

I don’t think that it does. We have failed to provide a level of fire safety that gives the public a standard of protection it deserves.

But lets also not forget that the people implementing the legislation are only carrying out what people in government enacted and made the law of the land.

 

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