Fire loss figures from insurers reveal a picture of worsening public fire protection in the UK so are the complexities of fire safety law are contributing to confusion about compliance?
by Tom Welland
3 June 2010
The Association of British Insurers (ABI) has issued figures that reveal a picture of worsening public fire protection in the UK with fire damage up by some 16 per cent to £1.3bn – a record high.
It’s nearly four years since the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, introduced in 2006, changed the role of the fire service from advisers to enforcers. A recent study revealed that more than a third of businesses are still unaware of the regulations and had failed to carry out a Fire Safety Risk Assessment, a procedure crucial to compliance under the Fire Safety Order.
The views of accredited fire risk assessors from the grassroots are mixed, with on the one hand fire safety professionals welcoming the consolidation of some seventy separate items of fire safety legislation into a single order, yet on the other hand questioning the open-endedness of its interpretation, which seems to have sown confusion among many of those responsible for fire safety.
Article 9 of the order is where wide spread difficulties have arisen with compliance. The form the risk assessment takes depends on the type and size of the premises and the occupants. What is suitable and sufficient for one building may not be for another. Similarly, two different fire officers may have differing views on the suitability of fire precautions.
Auditing a building’s risk to life from fire is a complex task and requires a lot of experience. A fire risk assessment is the blueprint to fire precautions. Ensuring its suitability ensures the occupant’s safety, so the need for it to be a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risks is key.
How responsible are you?
Many a responsible person will feel out of their depth in a role that is not their first line of responsibility, and a role with an unwelcome burden they were reluctant to accept.
And remember that as well as being required to carry out a Fire Safety Risk Assessment and act on its findings, if it is your responsibility to specify the materials and/or appoint a contractor, you are also required to ensure that they can prove competency for all fire protection materials used, plus all the installation and commissioning work. And it’s no longer simply a duty of care or a voluntary code – it is a legal obligation.
If you knowingly ignore advice that leads to a failure in the fire performance of any element of installed fire protection within a building, you are likely to be found to be just as culpable as the deficient installer. You share liability for the provision of information required under Building Regulation 16B that tells the user of the building about the fire prevention measures provided in that building. Otherwise, the user cannot make an effective risk assessment under the order.
In the event of a fire and fatalities, a court will want to know the reasoning why the fire protection system was selected; the basis for selection of the installer; whether adequate time was provided for its installation and whether there was adequate liaison between the different parties to ensure it was installed correctly and if a suitable maintenance regime was in place.
It is accepted that business managers that do not have a full-time employed health and safety manager are conscientious, but are also frequently uncertain about the extent of the order’s implementation because of the complexity of the assessment.
However, as high profile cases in the press confirm, fire and rescue authorities nationally are showing an increasing desire to prosecute, so many companies may feel they are being bulldozed into hasty decisions of over-specification that they’ll come to regret.
In the short term, then, the emphasis on pragmatic practice is likely to mean a more proportionate risk-assessed approach to potential hazards and the prioritisation of protection measures essential to life safety. This approach might mean, for example, deferring sophisticated upgrades for automatic fire systems while insisting on more rigorous test and maintenance routines for existing fire protection installations.
Under the current difficult economic conditions, the most valuable service FRA consultants can render their clients is to remind them that the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 is essentially a guidance document for a self-assessment regime, and there are often alternative solutions to be found for any fire safety problem. The client should keep in mind their duties under the order is make appropriate fire safety arrangements, having regard to the size and the nature of their business.
Tom Welland is fire services manager at fire safety specialists Fireco