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Adam Bannister is a contributor to IFSEC Global, having been in the role of Editor from 2014 through to November 2019. Adam also had stints as a journalist at cybersecurity publication, The Daily Swig, and as Managing Editor at Dynamis Online Media Group.
April 25, 2023


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IFSEC Interviews

‘Small firms can use competence to their commercial advantage’ – Andy Reakes on raising fire and security standards

JIB and ECS strategist, Andy Reakes, previews his upcoming IFSEC presentation on the industry’s competence drive.

The fire and security industry has been impressively busy with efforts to raise installation and engineering standards on numerous fronts.


Andy Reakes, Director of Growth and Development for the Joint Industry Board (JIB)

Competence has been the watchword since a ground-breaking apprenticeship standard launched in 2017 catalysed cross-industry collaboration via multiple initiatives and working groups.

Andy Reakes, Director of Growth and Development for the Joint Industry Board (JIB) with a focus on the Electrotechnical Certification Scheme (ECS), will discuss the progress made and soon to be made at IFSEC’s 50th edition in May.

Ahead of his presentation on ‘Raising standards and competence in the fire and security industry’, he told IFSEC Global about the impact of apprenticeships and the FESS Occupational Qualification Structure, and ambitious plans for validating the competence of experienced engineers.

IFSEC Global (IG): Please summarise the ECS’ role in promoting competence across the built environment…

Andy Reakes (AR): The development of the Fire, Emergency and Security Systems (FESS) standard gave us an opportunity to look at the wider structures in place for fire and security occupations.

There was previously a lack of regulated training, qualifications or apprenticeships. I think [industry] estimates are that around 75% of the industry is unqualified, where their skills and knowledge has been brought up by on-the-job training only.

So the trade associations, the FESS Trailblazer and Employer Groups, company certification bodies, and ourselves developed an occupational framework covering apprentices and students on industry placements through to qualified operatives and management.

What does career progression look like for that person? What are the opportunities and requirements for supervisors and managers and everything in between?

We facilitate this discussion; the structure is an industry creation – it had to come from industry to be relevant, pragmatic and achievable.

The ECS has an industry working group [involving the same organisations involved in the framework] plus a good two dozen more including some of the largest fire and security businesses in the UK.

And again, it’s a continual updating process. What are the requirements for those coming in at Level 2 awareness? How do you provide opportunities for workers that have been in the industry for five, 10, 20 years but never had much opportunity for formalised training? How can they be assessed to that same standard as somebody completing an apprenticeship?

At the moment, we’re facilitating discussions with awarding organisations. Part of that is being driven by the Construction Leadership Council and government’s Construction 2025 strategy. In our case that means upskilling the industry to a minimum of Level 3 vocational qualifications and what is equivalent to the FESS apprenticeship.

But it’s also being driven in part by Grenfell and the outcomes the building safety regulator is expecting for individual competence.

The Experienced Worker Assessments are the last big missing element that we’re hoping to announce at IFSEC in May.

And then you chuck into the mix Working Group 2 for installers under the Competence Steering Group for Grenfell. How does it align to those? And how does it align to the British Standard 8670 being developed for individual competence?

So, we make sure that whatever is developed is fit for purpose, aligns with all of those requirements and is realistically achievable.


IG: Can you give me a brief overview of what your talk will involve and who can benefit from attending?

AR: It’s the more experienced installers and employers of all sizes. It’s focusing on what’s coming and what the regulator will be expecting from main contractors to evidence individual competence in their supply chain.

How do you know that your subcontractors are actually qualified and competent – both in terms of organisational competence, your third-party certification, and down to the individual level?

I think it’s fair to say that until now it’s been about passing the buck down the chain: from the main contractor who subcontracts it out to a fire and security contractor, who have probably subbed it out to a small local firm.

What does audit compliance look like? How would you defend yourself if you were pulled up in front of a judge? How do you show that you’ve done everything that you should do to ensure the safety of that project?

We’re expecting to see the building safety regulator taking a more assertive position [on qualifications and competence] from the latter end of the year. That will probably align with the outcomes of the fire detection and alarm system pilot group for sector-specific competence.

This is an opportunity I think for companies – particularly some of the more agile small- and medium-sized companies – to use it to their commercial advantage. They can tell a client: “We are compliant and competing on quality rather than just lowest cost.”

We [will also discuss] a smartphone app called CSCS Smart Check, which can read and verify all two million-plus workers across the built environment and is being integrated into access control and HR and onboarding systems.

And you’ve got a competence framework that we’re already starting to see the outputs from. Some housebuilders in particular are saying: “We know what the gold card is, we know that’s an individual qualified to Level 3. Those are the people that we want to subcontract to.”

“And you’ve got a competence framework that we’re already starting to see the outputs from. Some housebuilders in particular are saying: “We know what the gold card is, we know that’s an individual qualified to Level 3. Those are the people that we want to subcontract to.”

IG: What has been the biggest achievement of the ECS so far and why?

AR: It’s probably one of two technology developments.

Either the CSCS Smart Check… I chaired the development and implementation group that led that work. There’s 41 databases fed in through an API. We’ve already seen 100,000 cards checked since its launch in April last year.

It’s a very simple to use, free to access system to verify people coming onto those jobs.

With the access control integration we’re expecting to see up to 300,000 cards being checked per month. So it’s a real big step up in terms of promoting that competence message.


Example of a FESS Systems Technician card

We also launched a remote invigilation system in 2021, so moving away from physical assessment centres. We’ve already seen 35,000 assessments, mainly around health, safety, environmental awareness, but we also operate several technical and awareness assessments for fire and security.

This came from a request from the industry group for a cost-effective, time sensitive way of assessing individuals’ current levels of knowledge.

IG: A lot has been set in motion over the past six years. Is it possible to discern any improvements in competence yet?

AR: It definitely is. The apprenticeship has the support of all major employers, it’s seen good take up through providers. There’s the End Point Assessment. It’s working well and demand has probably been greater than expected.

The biggest challenge is still assessing those who have been doing the job for a number of years. They’re probably very competent but as a client, as main contractor, you need a way of assessing that.

That is the skills gap. It might require upskilling or an assessment of existing skills.

The other change I’m expecting to see with the outcomes of Working Group 2 and the pilot group for fire detection and alarm systems is looking at what is industry-mandated CPD [continuing professional development]?

But again, it’s at least having a system where it’s no longer ‘qualified once, qualified forever’ but needing to stay up to date.

It’s something we’ve seen in other occupations with surprisingly high take-up. I’m hopeful that we can get a steer from employers, trade associations and certification bodies over what’s expected.

Most new entrants are now coming through a more regulated training route, so there’s definitely been a big step change over the last six years.

IG: What are your plans in the coming months and years to raise standards further?

AR: The CPD element – differentiating between mandatory and optional CPD – will be part of that.

We’ll help clients to evidence what best practice CPD looks like – to recognise training that meets standards compared to some manufacturer or awareness courses that don’t necessarily impart the skills needed.

We will always push the more structured approach to those specialisms and we are constantly evolving the standards and certification scheme.

So the apprenticeship is under review and we’re expecting that to be completed this year.

We will update the Experienced Worker Assessments through the awarding organisations to align them to the apprenticeship and new technologies.

And we’ll look at how employers and individuals can access greater levels of funding for apprenticeships, upskilling or Experienced Worker Assessments.


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