(Written April 2020…… Ed.)
In the three years since 2017 and Grenfell, fire risk assessments have risen in consciousness within the commercial property sector, as well as amongst duty holders of residential buildings such as blocks of flats and other multiple residency premises. Amidst the crisis caused by the global pandemic of COVID-19 (coronavirus), fire risk assessment remains essential and not to be overlooked – even more so since, in these challenging times, use of space and occupancy has changed as a consequence.
Providing a fire safety perspective, Staffordshire Fire & Rescue Service (along with other regional Services around the UK) issued guidance about reviewing fire risk assessments following COVID-19 related measures implemented by Government, and noted particular concerns for fire safety measures in these unprecedented times (see ‘Panel text’).
In recent years, serious fire incidents in premises as varied as an office block in London, a care home in Cheshire, a supermarket in Folkestone and a hotel in Scotland, all caused significant, if not catastrophic damage to infrastructure, and in some cases caused fatalities and other casualties. At the heart of fire safety – establishing sufficient fire prevention, protection and suppression measures, and the processes for safe evacuation in the event of an incident – lies life safety fire risk assessment.
What the law requires
Legislation requires a fire risk assessment to be carried out in almost all non-domestic premises, as well as a number of multiple occupancy residential buildings including those converted into individual flats and Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMOs).
Following the introduction of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 in England and Wales, the Fire Scotland Act 2005 and the Fire & Rescue Services (Northern Ireland) Order 2006/ Fire Safety Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2010, responsibility for fire safety in a building was passed from the Fire and Rescue Service to the ‘Responsible Person’ or ‘Duty Holder’. Under current UK fire safety legislation, Fire & Rescue Services are responsible for enforcement of the legislation but they still have a right to inspect premises, and often carry out this function with others such as local authorities.
In the event of a fire, especially if death or serious injury has occurred, the relevant Fire and Rescue Service will investigate and, where offences may have been committed, prosecution can follow.
Fire risk assessment guides currently published explain that fire risk assessments should be the foundation of all fire safety precautions in a variety of premises. These guides detail fire precautions to be taken with reference to British Standards, Fire Codes and Standards, and codes of practice provided by various bodies.
Life Safety Fire Risk Assessments are key
Life safety fire risk assessment (LSFRA) lies at the heart of establishing sufficient fire prevention, protection and suppression measures, alongside safe evacuation procedures to be applied in the event of an incident. Put simply, LSFRA protects lives, and the ‘Responsible Person’/Duty Holder is tasked with ensuring it is conducted. In the commercial sector the “Responsible Person” or “Duty Holder” is usually the employer rather than an individual, but this is determined by the relevant legislation.
An LSFRA is best conducted once a building is occupied since actual building usage can vary, and is as important a part of the assessment as the designed-in physical elements, such as escape routes and fire doors. Where five or more persons are “employed” the results of the LSFRA must be documented and legislation requires that all fire risk assessments are periodically reviewed to ensure they remain valid, for example when a change of use is effected.
Who is the ‘Responsible Person’ or ‘Duty Holder’?
At first sight this may appear straightforward. Yet when it comes to premises with complex contractual arrangements such as private finance initiatives (PFIs) or multi-tenanted buildings, it is not always clear. In England and Wales the Duty Holder is usually the employer, rather than an individual, and therefore not a person at all. In multiple occupancy premises each employer operating within the facility has Duty Holder responsibilities for their part of the whole.
The Duty Holder(s) can therefore be the owner, the landlord, the occupier(s) or anyone else with control and/or oversight of the premises, such as a facilities or estate manager. In most instances it is considered the responsibility of each employer to safeguard their employees, contractors and other visitors. Each Duty Holder has to work together with all other parties such as the facilities management provider or assigned contractor to ensure their requirements are met. The situation can be more complex in multi-tenanted buildings. For example, where tenants share spaces such as kitchens or reception areas, additional responsibility is placed on the lines of responsibility and the Duty Holder of the building.
Tenants are within their rights to seek copies of the LSFRA if they are not undertaking it themselves. If the maintenance of the building (including regular fire alarm testing, portable fire extinguishers and other routine maintenance,) is undertaken by the facilities management provider, or another contractor, the Duty Holder must, in order to fulfil their duty, maintain a close working relationship with the provider(s), to satisfy themselves that the appropriate assessment is conducted and reviewed regularly.
Competent Risk Assessors
Mindful of the potential for overburdening organisations, some would argue UK legislation has not addressed adequately the “competence” of the fire risk assessor. In effect, there is nothing stopping anyone setting up in business and calling themselves a fire risk assessor – regardless of lacking any experience, knowledge or qualifications in this area.
Government guidance is however clear that where Duty Holders feel unable to complete a fire risk assessment they should seek the advice of a competent person. In the case of more complex premises (e.g. residential care premises, hospitals and schools), the guidance also recommends assessments be conducted by a person with comprehensive training and experience in the type of fire risk assessment they are being asked to carry out.
After all: would you accept a gas heating system in a building that has been designed, installed, commissioned and maintained by a non-GAS SAFE registered company? Would you accept an electrical installation in a building that has been designed, installed, commissioned and maintained by a non-approved electrical contractor? Hopefully, in both cases the answer is ‘No’. Nevertheless, when it comes to fire risk assessment this is not a formally recognised activity.
In the absence of formal competency assessor requirements, the ‘Guide to Choosing a Competent Risk Assessor’ has been developed by the Fire Sector Federation (http://www.fia.uk.com/resourceLibrary/fire-risk-assessors-competency-criteria.html).
Third Party Certification of providers – reassurance for fire risk assessment
Independent Third Party Certification (TPC) adds significant assurance and rigour for Duty Holders looking for a provider to help them meet fire safety obligations. TPC delivers an independent ongoing programme of verification to LSFRA companies. Businesses can hold TPC as evidence of their competence to undertake, and their integrity in, delivering assessments, as well as their ongoing work in line with appropriate standards and best practice.
Following the Grenfell fire, the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety by Dame Judith Hackitt (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/independent-review-of-building-regulations-and-fire-safety-final-report) emphasised the responsibilities of the person appointed for fire safety within a building and the actions they can take to mitigate fire risk.
Organisations with responsibility for the vulnerable and/or large numbers of people may therefore consider the independently assessed competence of a contractor to provide fire risk assessment a much preferable alternative to the self-declared capability of an individual assessor. This is all the more true in challenging environments such as hospitals, residential care premises, large shopping complexes and other environments where the occupancy profile or on-site processes may necessitate a complex or delayed fire evacuation strategy.
Third Party Certification Bodies such as NSI assess organisations against the BAFE (British Approvals for Fire Equipment) Life Safety Fire Risk Assessment Scheme SP205. NSI’s Gold Scheme goes a step further by combining SP205 with the rigour of an ISO 9001 Quality Management System, demonstrating further a contractor’s capability and providing reassurance in the quality and relevance of the service being delivered.
UKAS-accredited NSI is the UK’s leading, independent third party certification (TPC) body within the guarding services, fire safety and security systems sectors, helping to protect businesses, public organisations, homeowners and the general public through rigorous audit of more than 1800 security and fire safety providers nationwide.
Appointed by BAFE, the independent register of quality fire safety service providers, NSI is the only TPC provider covering all BAFE fire safety schemes. These include Life Safety Fire Risk assessment providers and companies providing design, installation, commissioning and maintenance services for various fire protection schemes.
Businesses advised to review fire risk assessments
Staffordshire Fire and Rescue has advised businesses to review fire risk assessments following the Prime Minister’s announcement on 23rd March to restrict movement and close businesses.
“The fire safety measures within buildings are designed for their specific use and often do not include people sleeping. It may therefore not have the necessary fire safety measures installed to make this a safe practice,” said Fire Safety Lead Matt White.
The advice comes after recognition that any businesses still open, for example supermarkets and distribution centres, may have additional stock and people working, which could adversely affect means of escape and staff understanding of safety measures.
For those businesses forced to close under the current guidance, the fire risk should be mitigated by completing full shut down procedures, including isolating any electrical items. The risk of arson should be reduced by ensuring premises are secure, with any rubbish, bins or skips moved away from buildings.
Matt White added: “Under the current Covid-19 guidance, we continue to respond to serious fire safety concerns, however we are calling on business owners to assist in ensuring fire safety standards are maintained while businesses are not operating as they normally would.
“Compliance with the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 is still of utmost importance to protect businesses and people from fire. For those businesses open, simple tests to check the escape route is clear and accessible at all times must be completed as well as measures to ensure there are adequately trained staff on site at all times.”
Staffordshire Fire and Rescue are also discouraging people who may need to self-isolate from doing so in a place of work that may not have been designed for sleeping. Source: https://www.staffordshirefire.gov.uk/news/latest-news/businesses-advised-to-review-fire-risk-assessments/
Richard Jenkins became CEO of the National Security Inspectorate (NSI) in 2014. With its roots stemming from the 1970s, NSI celebrated 20 years of independence from the Loss Prevention Council in 2018, and has offered the full suite of BAFE Fire Safety Schemes for 15 years.
Richard’s experience in the private sector, within the UK and EMEA, spans sales, retail and wholesale distribution, manufacturing, international logistics and quality systems, in blue chip organisations such as IKEA, Chubb, Steelcase and Caterpillar. Richard has brought to NSI a strong added value and service ethos, a determination to deliver transparency, and clarity in promoting and supporting the high standards delivered by approved companies in the sector.