Fire safety – what must change?

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Ian King

Chief Operating Officer at Zeroignition

Forthcoming legislation should at least begin to speed things up. Previous disasters such as Hillsborough and Zebrugge resulted in both increased regulation and improved industry practices, and the Government looks set to take similar action on Grenfell. January saw the unveiling of plans to include establishing a new building safety regulator within the Health and Safety Executive. Meanwhile, there are also set to be changes to Building Regulations and a new fire safety bill (expected this summer). At this stage, the details are still uncertain, but it is clear that legislation alone won’t solve all the ills facing the sector.

The industry has significant challenges around poor communication, lack of ownership and a reluctance to be held accountable. The statements and submissions made in the first week of phase two of the Grenfell inquiry illustrate perfectly why this is problematic and just how widespread the issues are. This is supported by recent research from the CPA (Construction Products Association) conducted by NBS. The research, which looked into how building materials are incorporated into projects, reveals a culture of poor communication and piecemeal product-by-product approaches. And, crucially, a focus on cost above all else.

This potentially lethal combination puts lives at risk. Fire safety needs to be considered at every stage of a building’s design. Construction projects are incredibly complex and involve a myriad of choices, regardless of scale. Each decision has a knock-on effect and can generate unforeseen results. Yet, just 18% of respondents to the CPA study said that impact on other products were always considered when making a substitution. In this context, it’s easy to see how just a few small changes could have fatal results.

The sector operates on very low margins, and this has created a culture which values cost above safety. In this respect, construction is an anomaly. Other industries, including automotive, have standards, regulation and oversight which enforce a safety-first approach, no matter the context.

So, what’s the answer?

Fire safety to be holistic and considered throughout a project

This is RIBA’s current position, and its Plan of Works fire overlay includes designing-in both active and passive measures. There are clearly defined fire safety roles at each work stage from the strategic definition of the project through briefing, design, construction, handover and in-use. Sign off and review must be rigorous and incorporate the client, designers and constructors. This approach needs to be followed and become standard practice before regulation comes into force. Lives depend on it.

A focus on education and upskilling

If laws aren’t being improved quickly enough to save lives and property, then let’s challenge ourselves to know more and bring it into our everyday work. This means fire protection is a key concern rather than an afterthought. It starts with the basics, our study found less than one in 10 architects could define four essential fire protection terms. What’s more, while conducting the interviews, we found that although most architects said they’d had some training, none said that they’d had comprehensive fire protection training. If your knowledge is a bit rusty, RIBA has a fire safety CPD roadshow.

Training must be ongoing and career-long and not just restricted to the regulated professions.

Developing a systematic approach

Let’s stop seeing products and start seeing a system. Grenfell was not caused by a single product or poor decision. It was a failure of not just products but of people and practice too. Buildings are much more than the sum of their parts. At every stage, we need to focus on the end result: we are creating a place for people to live and work in, not designing a doorway or a facade.

But change shouldn’t end there. The industry also needs to see:

Improved and realistic testing regime

Taking a systematic approach still involves the specification of individual components. And, of course, each element must be tested for its individual fire performance. However, the testing regime needs to be built out, and tests need to mimic real life. Groups of products must be tested together to simulate real-world scenarios.

Certification should only be granted by independent third-party bodies. The days of manufacturers marking their own homework must end. There also needs to be auditing and spot inspections to check items still perform as certified.

Driving traceability and accountability

Unlike the automotive and aviation industries, there’s currently almost no construction chain of custody (CCC). From component manufacture through to installation and maintenance, responsibility is going untracked. Although construction sites often have a local chain of authority, improved safety is contingent on wider oversight of products, installation and construction methods. There needs to be a record joining everything up – the golden thread providing a digital log of what was specified, installed and maintained, along with the person responsible.

Our call to the industry

Safety must come first, every time. Although progress is slow, fire safety is moving towards becoming a non-negotiable essential.

While regulation is part of the picture, this must be handled sensibly, and coupled with a stringent and enforced inspection regime. Industry experts now recognise that combining product knowledge, fire-safe system design and figuring out how they work together is essential to building better structures. Ultimately, better product awareness will protect and save lives. Despite all the information available, it is very clear that there is still more to be done across the board to ensure that best practice is fully bedded in. We all have a part to play; let’s step up.

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