The risk of fire is thankfully not an immediate threat in most people’s everyday lives. But this has led to a nonchalant attitude where many fail to appreciate the true dangers posed by a fire situation.

The pandemic has served to make matters even more complex, and has pushed fire safety on the back burner as facility managers (FMs) turn their attention to COVID-proofing the workplace. Safety at work is now more of a focus than it has ever been, but the race to ensure we can return to work safely has seen other important matters, like improving indoor air quality, take precedence.

Fire detection systems 

As new rules and regulations regarding the pandemic are introduced, many FMs have been unable to focus on anything except the immediate issues at hand. But fire safety is always immediate. Fire detection systems and servicing and maintenance contracts have always been considered grudge purchases, but this doesn’t mean they should fall off the radar. As buildings have been left vacant, fire alarms have gone untested, have missed upgrades or have even failed to sound.

Every business has faced unique challenges in their response to the pandemic

But upholding fire safety measures in the workplace is both a moral and legal requirement to help ensure the protection of people and assets, and businesses must treat it with the attention it deserves. Every business has faced unique challenges in their response to the pandemic. We’ve seen some continue operating as usual, some pivot production to make face masks and hand sanitizer, while others have shut their doors for the foreseeable future.

Fire risk assessments

Those that remained open will likely have experienced considerable changes to workplace layouts, which may in turn have had adverse effects on fire safety – for example, fire doors being wedged open for ventilation, or because people don’t want to touch door handles; and new one-way systems that affect shared escape routes. What’s more, fluctuating staff occupancy levels mean there may not be enough fire wardens present should an alarm sound.

All of these changes have an impact. In the event of a fire, your staff and assets might not be as safe as you think. But there is a simple solution: fire risk assessments. The vast majority of companies have undergone a change of occupancy during the pandemic and, as a result, must review their current fire safety measures through a risk assessment.

Qualified third-Parties

We often find that businesses lack staff with the appropriate training and skillsets in-house

This involves looking at a building’s people, processes, procedures, contents and technologies, from fire alarms to sprinkler systems, with the aim of addressing any faults. With occupancy levels and more changed for the meantime – and possible for the long-term too – it’s vital to update your risk assessments.

Failing to do so could have severe reputational and financial repercussions, particularly if livelihoods are affected. Should the worst happen, it could also lead to insurers refusing any pay-outs from failing to secure the premises, leading to even more difficulties down the line. We often find that businesses lack staff with the appropriate training and skillsets in-house to conduct a sufficient fire risk assessment. But even with the current restrictions, there’s no reason risk assessments can’t be easily carried out by qualified third-parties.

Social distancing guidelines

Many buildings lie vacant, meaning assessors simply need to show up in their PPE and conduct the assessment under social distancing guidelines. Technology can also play an important role, by ensuring a building’s safety systems are in order through remote diagnostic tools.

Some assessors can even carry out a vast majority of the assessment virtually, examining floorplans, exit routes, and tech stacks from the comfort of their own homes. That said, many businesses won’t have the latest IoT sensors needed to notify FMs on the condition of a building’s physical aspects, such as occupancy levels, open fire doors or signage.

Need for office space

The impact of COVID-19 on the way we work will be felt for years to come

The purpose of a fire risk assessment is to provide FMs with the knowledge they need to ensure their business and assets remain safe and secure, should the worst happen.

COVID has not put a stop to this – distraction has. The onus is on FMs to put fire safety back on the priority list. The impact of COVID-19 on the way we work will be felt for years to come. For example, the success of the move to widespread remote work could see businesses revaluating the need for office space, and this will likely have knock-on effects to fire safety as regulations are taken into the home.

Associated regulatory changes

Elsewhere, the decline of the high street and closure of physical stores may see shops converted for other purposes - and these developments will be accompanied by the associated regulatory changes. It’s becoming clear that as the pandemic has changed the way we use buildings, it will also change the way we approach fire safety.

People don’t like to think they may be impacted by fire, but we cannot let fire safety fall off the radar when livelihoods and lives are at risk. As FMs have worked hard to ensure our workplaces are COVID-proof once doors reopen, they must also approach the risk of fire with the same attentiveness. Awareness of the issue is now more important than ever – fire safety needs to be a top priority.

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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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