What Impact Has COVID-19 Had On The Fire Industry?
8 Apr 2021
The COVID-19 pandemic has had ramifications for almost every industry, some more than others. With the pandemic stretching well into a second year, the non-medical consequences continue, and many are wondering about which of the required changes might become permanent. As regards the fire sector, we asked our Expert Panel Roundtable: What impact has COVID-19 had on the fire industry?
As we have seen, COVID-19 has hit most industries like a wave, leaving lasting damage in its path. For the fire industry, the effects of COVID could be viewed as double-edged, with current concerns leading to potential future issues, too. Take the financial impact for example. With companies up and down as the country feels the financial aftershocks of COVID, it could be that cheaper fire door hardware alternatives are suddenly sought after to achieve cost savings. This in itself could develop dangerous repercussions, proving costly in the event of a fire when substandard door closers and exit hardware do not work as required. With fewer people using office buildings, too, fire inspectors may not have the chance to access certain areas to carry out routine maintenance checks. This may be leaving fire doors neglected and thus potentially dropping the effectiveness of crucial fire safety equipment. With a return to “normal” seemingly on the agenda in 2021, it is imperative that fire safety standards don’t slip and, instead, all buildings continue to strive for complete fire safety in preparation for everyone’s return.
Prosecutions have gone down, but these are likely to increase soon after lockdown is lifted. Inspections in some sectors have increased, as has the use of enforcement notices. Risk assessments are even more "desk-based" than before – this is likely to cause problems in the future, partly because the fire services are more critical of Resident Assistants (RAs). Insurance will spiral up for owners of buildings that need cladding work done, as they cannot pass on the costs to tenants. The closure of most commercial properties and a freeze on most new building projects have dealt a blow to the fire safety industry – but those who have survived will bounce back as soon as premises open up and building projects restart. Those involved in fire safety training have moved with the times. We have seen a Zoom boost in business, as have some consultants who have adapted to the new norm. The overall picture has been gloomy, but shoots of recovery can be seen. For regulatory lawyers, business is about to bloom.
The global COVID-19 pandemic has created an environment where buildings are largely unoccupied and employees are adjusting to hybrid working practices. This creates two significant considerations for our customers – the evolution of evacuation procedures and the need to connect fire systems to remotely reinforce building protection. In the “new normal,” it is often uncertain how many people are actually in the office or another workplace. In addition, the designated evacuation “leaders” might not be present either. We believe that, in order to protect lives and maintain continuity, it is essential for building managers to increase the number of employees trained on fire emergency management and integrate their people counting and access control solutions with this evacuation procedure to ensure safety in the event of a fire. We have also observed growth in the monitoring segment of our fire business as customers seek to protect their assets when people are not in the workplace due to COVID restrictions, hybrid or remote working practices. We urge customers to consider options as soon as possible, as buildings will likely be only partly occupied for the foreseeable future.
The pandemic lockdown had a silver lining: It meant more built environment professionals were working at home and had time to upskill and increase their technical know-how. It opened a window of opportunity to raise fire protection awareness, a very topical issue against last year’s policy landscape. Without commuting to work, face-to-face meetings, attending events, and exhibiting at trade fairs, the construction industry had time to pause, reflect and properly prepare themselves for the fire safety regulation down the track. We have definitely registered an increasing understanding of fire prevention and protection during the specification process. This bodes well, not only for the industry, but the safety of a building’s end-user, owner, or occupant.
As a front-line, critical service, the fire service felt a considerable impact from COVID-19. Firefighters have coped admirably against a backdrop of expanded roles and considerable staff absences. Some brigades have seen absence levels of up to 40%, forcing them to re-train some staff from non-operational roles as emergency responders. It has meant a broader range of service offerings, with brigades offering wider community support, from vaccinations to vital support elements such as delivering food and medicine and driving ambulances. As a result of pressures being placed on services by COVID-19, we have seen reduced investment in some areas of new equipment and emerging technologies; however, we believe this to be a short-term trend. Probably the most significant impact has been the increased critical nature of cleaning and disinfection. It has given rise to more thorough and detailed cleaning equipment regimes, also supplemented by personal issue masks to prevent cross-contamination. This is aiding the fight against COVID-19, as well as other viruses and carcinogens.
As the world has adapted to the pandemic, one of the most striking impacts for the Fire sector has been the effect COVID-19 has had on the aviation and travel industries, which in turn also affects the airport operating infrastructure, including Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting (ARFF) Service and the ability of businesses within the fire sector to operate effectively during international travel restrictions. In some cases, major development projects have been placed on hold or postponed until the situation returns to normal, while other projects have scaled back or furloughed staff. This places great pressure on all businesses, both large and small. Adaptability has been key: For many, personal meetings and exhibitions have been replaced by virtual meetings and online conferences, working from home has become normalized and social distancing, hand washing, and mask-wearing are now almost automatic. Obviously implementing COVID-19 secure processes and procedures has had a cost for all businesses, which must be absorbed. Also, some Fire Service operators have struggled when infections, which has meant that staff must quarantine for long periods of time, affecting rotas and manning.
COVID-19 has had huge knock-on effects on the way we should approach the fire. The past year has seen unforeseen changes to the way businesses operate, and those changes have definitely affected attitudes to fire safety. Some businesses have been forced to shut, others have seen staffing levels reduced or increased, and some have repurposed, all of which constitutes a change in occupancy status. As such, all fire risk assessments (FRA) and associated fire safety strategies should be reviewed. The Government’s stance is that FRA must continue to be completed and reviewed. Not only this, but the move to widespread remote work has seen the home become an extension of the office. Businesses should therefore consider adapting FRAs to uphold fire safety standards at home – after all, this is where people are most at risk under normal circumstances, and the dangers will be greater with many of us spending more time indoors. While we are unlikely to revert to pre-pandemic working habits, the risk of fire will always be present. Businesses should approach fire safety with the attention it deserves and ensure employees are kept safe regardless of where they are based.
The control room is the heart of Fire and Rescue Service operations. When the coronavirus pandemic forced a nationwide shift to remote working, the need for flexible, secure remote working for control room staff was accelerated rapidly. Cloud-based control room solutions provide the necessary resilience, scalability, and reliability for secure remote working. Every piece of information can be captured and responded to quickly, to give firefighters immediate access to incident details. A great example is Bedfordshire Fire & Rescue Service, the first UK FRS to have pioneered cloud control room technology from Motorola Solutions with a fully cloud-hosted system. This provides control room staff – who receive over 60,000 calls per year – with the best digital tools to respond effectively so that operators can focus on the job at hand, wherever they are working, resolving calls at first contact, efficiently dispatching resources, and reporting vital information to protect the public.
Front line fire and rescue teams have really had their hands full, even during the pandemic. Fire services in the UK, for instance, attended more than half a million incidents in 2020, with more than 150,000 regarded as serious fires. Despite the stay-at-home order due to the COVID-19 pandemic and much of the country being in lockdown, these figures are only slightly down on previous years. Firefighters put their lives on the line every single day to keep us safe, but over the past 12 months they’ve been exposed to even more risk as they continue to carry out their front-line duty amid the spread of the disease, whether that’s at homes, businesses or during protests that we’ve seen worldwide. Attention has therefore turned back to critical communications and protective gear, and how the two can be combined to allow firefighter teams to communicate safely and effectively as they deal with incidents. Hands-free wearable tech can now be integrated with PPE systems, creating a future-proof solution for seamless communication in noisy, hazardous environments.
From empty buildings to working at home, from project slowdowns to less maintenance, from extra pressures on firefighters to a challenging business climate, the COVID-19 pandemic has had numerous profound impacts on the fire market. On the positive side, as one panelist notes, the pandemic has "opened a window of opportunity to raise fire protection awareness." For better or worse, most of us have had plenty of time to reflect during the last year, including thoughts of what comes next for the fire industry.
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