In the years since the Grenfell Tower tragedy of 2017, all eyes have been on fire regulations, which have come under increased scrutiny – and it’s easy to see why. Even after the disaster, businesses across the UK are still lagging behind on mandatory fire safety regulations. It seems that regulatory change has not brought about the desired outcome at most organizations.  

With all 53 recommendations of the Hackitt Review set to come into effect this year, many are hoping that this will soon change. Dame Hackitt’s ‘new regulatory regime’ will place renewed momentum on regulatory change to help ensure all tower blocks are safe to inhabit.

The industry has realised that introducing regulations in a gradual fashion will see them implemented in a phased and unstructured approach. While every organization is working towards the same fire safety goals, the impact of this piecemeal change has been somewhat of a hindrance. What the industry needs is a complete overhaul of the way fire safety regulations are understood and applied. The Hackitt Review has helped to keep momentum going, but a lot more can be done to make regulatory change a reality.  

The changing regulatory landscape

Take the Fire Safety Order of 2005. The Order, which states that fire detection and suppression systems and fire risk assessments must be ‘suitable and sufficient’, should be the starting point from which businesses determine their fire safety strategy. Sadly, in reality, outdated fire risk assessments and ill-prepared systems are all too common. UK businesses need to reconsider their policies and ensure that they are not only up to regulatory standard, but fully equipped to protect their employees, residents and visitors from harm.

What the industry needs is a complete overhaul of the way fire safety regulations are understood and applied

On a similar note, take 2017’s updated British Standard 5839-1 regulation as a second example. With the extended rules now in place, companies need to understand how they will be affected and what the requirements will be. The standard, which deals with the design, installation and maintenance of fire detection and alarm systems, now calls for greater attention to the reduction of false alarms, increased numbers of sensor types in different zones and improved maintenance. 

Due diligence requirements are being tightened up, and companies will find loopholes much more closely policed. Not only that, but investment in hardware, including covers for call points, is going to be necessary. Change will have to come at both the operational and the budget stages – and preparation is key. The government’s plans for a new buildings safety regulator should have a major impact on practices and on the wider landscape, shedding light on what needs to change within both residential and commercial buildings, and probably beyond the UK. Now it’s up to individual companies to change the way they approach fire safety, and ensure that they can keep occupants as safe as possible. 

Effective fire suppression as a priority  

For a case in point of how regulatory changes should be implemented, let’s consider sprinkler systems. In their current form, there is a requirement that buildings above a certain size and application must have sprinkler systems built in from the earliest stages of planning. 

As the Grenfell inquiry progresses and brings its recommendations to parliament, we can expect a far larger proportion of public buildings required to have sprinkler systems retrofitted, and new builds needing to incorporate them from the very beginning. 

Due diligence requirements are being tightened up, and companies will find loopholes much more closely policed

But it’s not just a matter of installing sprinkler systems: servicing, maintenance, system design, and operation must all be properly attended to. Safety teams must ensure that all sprinkler systems are kept in full working order, checking components on a regular basis and running simulations where possible. 

Regular hazard reviews and testing carried out by certificated companies is also essential, and your systems must be checked by qualified engineers. There should be an attitude of honesty when it comes to upgrades and change – if a system fails to comply with regulations, or has degraded over time, then cost worries must always come second to compliance. 

Assessing the risk at your facilities

To ensure safety, you need to ensure that your hardware is being tested on a regular basis by independent observers. You also need to conduct regular fire risk assessments of the entire building, taking into account everything from exits, gangways and ventilation to detection, alarms and evacuation procedures. From the furthest reach of the building to the place of ultimate safety, you need to have considered every potential hindrance and risk to give you the best chance of protecting your building occupants.

But this doesn’t mean a black and white choice between a satisfactory balance sheet and the safety of employees and the local community. By working with an expert fire risk assessor, businesses can achieve regulatory compliance and desirable safety levels on a workable budget through a combination of intelligent consultancy and expertise. 

In the rush to avoid repeating past mistakes, there is certainly a risk that some fire safety teams may settle for less well-resourced assessors, or those without the expertise required to effectively and safely discern the conditions of the building, just to make sure that something is done. To avoid this, companies should be looking for professional organizations with a proven track record of successful assessments – who should be product agnostic – to conduct the review. 

A full-service offering is a positive sign that points to a good provider – a consultative organization that can assess needs and suggest solutions accordingly, specific to particular environments and systems, is key to reducing risk and achieving compliance. Even better, companies that can provide assessment, servicing, and long-term maintenance across an entire building, site or facility are most likely to be able to help you comply with new regulations and protect your staff and assets.

The results of risk assessments

A good fire risk assessment can be very literally the difference between life and death. We all like to think that it couldn’t happen to us; that our office or home must be safe, couldn’t possibly fall foul of a stray spark or a dropped match; but the statistics say otherwise. In the year ending September 2017, Fire and Rescue services attended over 170,000 fires in the UK, and there were 346 fatalities as a result. 

To ensure safety, you need to ensure that your hardware is being tested on a regular basis by independent observers

We’ve all experienced the directionless panic that can set in when people undergo an unplanned fire drill. That’s particularly heightened in cases where false alarms are common – frequent evacuations as a result of poor maintenance or system management breed complacency.

Why is this relevant to fire risk assessments? The better your assessment, the more well-equipped you’ll be to plan your evacuation procedure, as well as to locate and maintain your detection and suppression systems. A regularly-updated fire risk assessment is the key to understanding the potential pitfalls of your building, whether that’s sub-par fire doors, narrow staircases, a small number of exterior exit points or simply a need for more alarm call points. 

Some of those factors will be out of your control, but you can take advice from your assessors and install new hardware or remove obstacles from gangways. Above all, you’ll be better able to draft a well-informed evacuation plan to ensure that all occupants know what’s required of them in the event of a fire. 

Aside from all-important personal safety, there are also business considerations involved in fire risk assessments, the most prominent among them being regulatory compliance and future commercial planning. We began by considering some of the major regulatory requirements that have been introduced under BS 5839-1:2017. The best way to help yourself prepare for compliance and ensure that you do a good job of implementing the changes is to have a comprehensive fire risk assessment on hand to help you understand how the rules will apply to your particular situation.

The ability to plan effectively will also help you to look after the bottom line without sacrificing due diligence. There are worries that sweeping changes in fire regulations will cost the earth, and when faced with a whole new raft of purchases and process updates, it can feel daunting and expensive. However, by beginning now and making sure you have a comprehensive understanding of your facility’s strengths and weaknesses with regard to fire safety, you’ll be able to get a basic understanding of what’s going to need changing, allowing you to plan any necessary expenses and review multiple tenders to get the best price.

Moving forward

With renewed focus on fire regulations, it’s essential for companies of every size to shape up, regardless of their workforce or building type. Protecting lives and assets from the risk of fire is of crucial importance. Ignoring the details of fire safety will no longer simply be an oversight – but a matter of life or death. 

Protecting lives and assets from the risk of fire is of crucial importance

Conducting a detailed fire risk assessment is a good first step to ensuring businesses are prepared. From there, choosing a partner who has access to a full suite of services and a proven track record of success will help usher in the necessary change. Fire safety should ultimately be treated with the severity and attention that it deserves – there is simply too much to lose if we fail to learn from past mistakes.

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Author profile

Peter Lackey Fire Manager, Johnson Controls

With a relevant fire service and offshore survival background, Peter has worked in the fire safety industry for over 30 years. He is responsible for Johnson Controls UK&I’s electronic detection systems from development through marketing and training to life cycle management. Peter regularly addresses various professional bodies on fire safety engineering, and has been a member of the Fire Industry Association Marketing Group for almost 21 years, promoting the interests and benefits of membership, including acting as a respected lobby group for UK fire safety legislation

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