The increase in major fires across the UK has highlighted an urgent need for competence in the provision of fire safety arrangements. In this article, Claire Wright, Head of Training at the Fire Protection Association (FPA), explores the challenges facilities managers face when it comes to implementing and maintaining fire safety systems, equipment and procedures in the workplace and why insisting on third-party certification for fire safety products and contractors is essential in minimising risk.
Between January 2009 and December 2019, there was a recorded 4,782 major fires in the UK. Added to this, FPA data highlights that fires lead to an average large loss of £657,074 per incident*. Therefore, aside from the significant risk to life, a fire is also likely to have a devastating impact on the building itself and can lead to losses in income, damage to equipment and stock and prolonged downtime, among other costly challenges. While some businesses will recover in time, many will not have the organisational resilience needed to survive whether that be from a financial, reputational, or commercial perspective.
Using certified contractors and products is a critical step in reducing the risk of serious fire damage, and ensuring these standards are met often forms part of a facilities manager’s role. Here we explore the vital considerations for facilities managers to better identify and assess fire risks, with the goal to prevent or limit their impact.
Following the Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017, the debate over competency has gained significant momentum. While the subsequent Hackitt review identified a lack of skills, knowledge and experience within the building and construction industry in relation to fire, its recommendations focused predominantly on high rise residential buildings. Lack of fire safety competency, however, affects all building types, including commercial properties where the risk to business continuity is additional to the serious risk to life.
While there is currently no consistent legal definition of what competency really looks like, other than maybe for fire risk assessors where outlined competency criteria have been in place for several years, facilities managers and those responsible for fire safety face increasing pressure to not only act competently but to provide evidence of their own or others’ competency too. Seeking third party accreditation is the principal way to ensure best practice is followed and that the building or its occupants are not put at unnecessary risk.
Third party certification can be issued to either an individual, company, or product – for example fire doors. For facilities managers, many of which have responsibility for fire safety within their building(s), becoming a competent fire risk assessor or more practicably, employing one, should be an important consideration.
Building Knowledge Through Training
Facilities managers have certain important responsibilities in relation to fire safety, meaning that they have a role in ensuring that the building’s fire protocols, and protection measures are thoroughly tested and maintained. As such, it is important they fully understand the scope of their role and what they are accountable for, and the impact their decisions can have in ensuring the safety of the premises and occupants in the event of a fire. For facilities managers this is particularly important as they are likely juggling a wide range of tasks on a day-to-day basis.
By law, the responsible person (normally the owner or occupier of the premises in simple terms) must make a ‘suitable and sufficient assessment of the risks’ in a building and implement safety measures appropriate to the circumstances, however this does not mean that they cannot seek help from a competent third party. As they may be held to a degree accountable in the event of an incident, facilities managers should be seeking out additional education and training to help them understand the challenges and the risk assessment itself. Sufficient training will also help them to implement the recommendations made in the risk assessment.
A key point for development should also be around fire evacuation strategies, which will usually be created as a response to the building’s fire risk assessment and will form part of the building’s ongoing fire strategy. This should consider the specific people at risk, where they are in the building, and the risks that cannot be removed or reduced any further. The process of a successful evacuation can be tricky, however, as the size of the building may mean that it needs to move from a single to staged or phased evacuation, where facilities managers will need to evacuate certain floors or areas within the building according to a pre-set plan.
It is therefore critical that facilities managers and all those responsible for fire safety have the right training to ensure that the initial decisions they make are correct, but also that risks to personnel are minimised. Few buildings have large numbers of fires each year, but many have disruptive numbers of unnecessary evacuations due to false alarms and poor control of contractor work. A well-trained team of responders can minimise disruption by quickly identifying false alarms or tackling any small fire at an early stage providing they have received appropriate training.
Getting A Thorough Fire Strategy In Place
Fire strategies are a fundamental part of a risk impact analysis and serve to protect life and essential property in the event of a fire. But in our experience, there isn’t always a robust strategy in place dictating a holistic approach to fire safety. The British Standards Institution document, PAS 911, refers to a fire strategy as providing ‘a clear set of measures encompassing fire precautions, management of fire safety and fire protection.’ It involves the development and implementation of systems, policies and procedures that address relevant risks in line with specific business objectives, with an aim to reduce life risk while also protecting business procedures and assets.
It’s important that facilities managers do not see fire strategies as a one size fits all arrangement, they should be developed and aligned to the business’ requirements and the building’s specifications. Considerations may include but are not limited to:
- Building description including layout and materials
- Fire compartmentation, including protection to escape routes
- Evacuation strategy
- Fire detection and alarm arrangements, emergency lighting and fire safety signage
- Smoke ventilation and fire suppression
- Fire safety management arrangements including staff training, inspection and review requirements
Facilities managers must ensure they are taking the appropriate action to minimise the risk of fire in the workplace. A major part of this will be based on their ability to carry out a thorough fire risk assessment, as well as implementing and following a thorough fire strategy specific to the premises. It’s important to remember, however, that they aren’t expected to know all the answers without guidance and should be seeking the appropriate support from a competent, certified third party to help them understand and follow legal standards and good practice.
For more information on third party accreditation and the resources available to facilities managers please visit: https://www.thefpa.co.uk/know-your-building
*All data comes from the FPA’s Large Loss Database, an analysis of over 4,782 reported fires with losses of over £100k in buildings used by private and public sector organisations, and residential and mixed multiple occupancy shared ownership buildings, between January 2009 and December 2019.
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