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September 15, 2010

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The heat is on

Several recent high-profile cases involving breaches of fire-safety laws and concomitant heavy fines have prompted duty-holders to start sweating about whether or not they are compliant. Ed Hall examines the key actions an organisation can take to protect those at risk from harm, and the organisation itself from unplanned costs and potential prosecution.

Almost four years after major changes to fire safety law came into force under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (RRO), London Fire Brigade is warning that many businesses still don’t have sufficient understanding of how the law affects their business or premises, and that they could be risking prosecution and/or financial ruin.1 According to the Office of National Statistics, 35,000 fires occur in office premises and 63,000 in the home every year – numbers that continue to rise and which translate into a cost to UK businesses of some £7billion annually.

Surrey Fire and Rescue believes that one in five businesses suffers major disruption each year, and 80 per cent of businesses affected by fire close within a month. If that wasn’t a startling enough statistic, 70 to 80 per cent of those businesses that do pick up the pieces and continue trading are expected to fail within three years of experiencing fire.2

Fire safety enforcement in England and Wales sits with local Fire Authorities, who have recently won a number of high-profile cases involving poor fire safety and/or a failure by organisations to comply with the RRO. In the last year alone, the Co-operative Group has had to pay £210,000,3 Tesco – £119,000,4 and fashion retailer New Look £400,0005 for RRO breaches. Ensuring buildings are safe for the people who use and access them is non-negotiable, and the Fire Authorities remain committed to enforcing fire legislation by carrying out inspections, and prosecuting serious, or repeated breaches.

What must duty-holders do?

There are three simple key actions that employers and landlords can take to help ensure that they meet their legal and moral obligations:
1    Ensure the competence of their Responsible Person(s) and fire risk assessor(s);
2    Ensure that risk assessments are building-specific; and
3    Ensure that identified actions are planned and their implementation properly managed.

Under the RRO, the employer or landlord must appoint a ‘Responsible Person’ to oversee ‘a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risks’. The RRO requires that the role of the risk assessor be undertaken by a competent person, specifically someone who has sufficient training and experience, or knowledge to assist properly in undertaking the necessary preventative and protective measures.

Most organisations involved in managing public premises (e.g. retail, leisure and entertainment) should recognise that specific skills and competency are required to carry out fire risk assessments. However, many employers and landlords do not give the same consideration to office or residential premises, where there may also be a large number of people present and at risk from fire. For some of these premises, such as high-rise office or residential blocks, the level of knowledge and skill required to carry out a suitable and sufficient fire risk assessment will be significantly higher than for small units.

Earlier this year, the assistant commissioner for fire safety regulation with the London Fire Brigade, Steve Turek, speaking in relation to fire safety training for staff at the London Borough of Southwark, stated that the course information “clearly states that it is designed to provide participants with the knowledge and understanding to undertake fire risk assessments (FRA) in simple premises, such as offices, small retail units, and similar. The course is not designed to equip attendees to carry out FRAs in complex structures, where a clear level of expertise is required.”6

Not long afterwards, six tenants died in a blaze at Lakanal House, a high-rise residential block in the borough.7

Fire risk assessments should take account of BS 5588,8 the Building Regulations,9 and Communities and Local Government guidance publications on fire safety,10 but the more recent BS 9999:200811 must also be encompassed.

Some of those currently carrying out fire risk assessments are simply not competent to do so, resulting in inadequate assessments – the consequences of which become apparent only when it’s too late, and a fire has claimed lives and livelihoods. All too often, the lowest-cost solution to assessment is chosen, which encourages the assessor to use a simple checklist approach. While this may be sufficient in some circumstances it is usually a false economy, because the aforementioned consequences of an inadequate risk assessment are so high.

Higher education
High-rise blocks – both office and residential – provide a good example of where a simple checklist approach is totally inadequate, as there is a number of detailed problem areas to be considered when carrying out a fire risk assessment:

  • Integrity of the fire compartments that prevent rapid spread of fire and smoke into adjacent areas, or escape routes;
  • Prevention of fire and smoke spread between floors through service risers and, externally, from openings and combustible cladding;
  • Specific protection of the escape staircases against fire and smoke;
  • Maintaining clear evacuation routes and occupiers’ housekeeping and storage of materials;
  • Identification of unprotected centralised ventilation systems;
  • Review of how changes have impacted the original building design to provide protection in the case of a fire;
  • Inspection of smoke vents and channelling that may been compromised during alterations; and
  • The impact of alterations on fire safety for the whole building – e.g. replacement of fire doors, changes to windows and glazing, introduction of ‘vents’, etc.

Ensuring there is an adequate number of escape routes, and providing early-warning and detection systems are also highlighted by the Health and Safety Executive in its guidance on the subject.12

Implementing identified actions
Some organisations wrongly believe that by carrying out the fire risk assessment they are compliant with the RRO but the assessment is just the first step in the process; as a document on its own, it does not actually improve the fire safety of a building until the actions identified in the risk assessment are closed out. 

Fire Authorities have made it clear they want to see swift and effective action – not just in carrying out, or reviewing fire risk assessments but also in implementing remedial work.

The Responsible Person implements the fire action plan, and the fire management and evacuation plans for the building. The action plan identifies actions to be undertaken to reduce the risk to the occupants of the premises, while the management and evacuation plans set out procedural controls, such as how individuals are required to respond to fire and evacuate a building safely.

As well as outlining any required remedial works, the action plan should prioritise the hazards identified in the risk assessment based on the impact to the occupants and the probability of the hazards arising. Such prioritisation helps the organisation focus resources (both cost and time) on those areas that present the highest risk to occupants’ safety. 

In small premises, preparing an action plan, prioritising and implementation are straightforward but for landowners and managers who are responsible for a large number of properties, or an entire estate, it can be difficult to form an overall picture of fire-safety deficiencies, priorities and resource allocation across the organisation and capture it in a management plan. Indeed, monitoring individual risk assessments for each building can be administratively challenging and fundamentally ineffective in dealing with the risk. 

In response to this challenge, many organisations use a fire risk-management database, which holds all their fire risk assessments and allows them to be analysed at various levels – for example: property-specific, by estate or division, or organisation-wide. A good database will automatically generate action plans specific to each property, outlining the unique tasks pertaining to each Responsible Person, and will also provide the facility to collate common actions across multiple premises, which facilitates cost estimation and, ultimately, procurement.

Incorporating fire risk management properly into existing safety management systems, or applying a management system approach to fire safety management, provides an efficient, structured and effective way of managing this risk. Meeting the requirements of the RRO is relatively straightforward, provided that a suitable and sufficient fire risk assessment is undertaken by a competent person, and a plan put in place and implemented to address actions arising from the assessment.

The costs of corrective actions identified in the action plans are generally not prohibitive – more often than not, issues for which companies are prosecuted are a direct result of poor management procedures and training, which would have been relatively easy to correct in the first place.    

[Panel – Where there are flames, there’s a claim]

Arson remains the most common cause of fire in the UK, according to insurance specialist, Aviva.

The company’s commercial claims data for the period 2005-2009 shows that, year on year, one in five fires was caused by arson, ahead of any other cause, such as electrical fault, heating appliances, own trade processes, or smoking materials.

The latest report* from the Association of British Insurers on the cost of fire damage shows that even though the number of incidents of fire in the UK has fallen slightly, the actual financial costs rose to a record high of £1.3 billion in 2008. The average cost of fire claims more than doubled between 2002 and 2008.

According to Allister Smith, property risk manager for Aviva: “It is easy to say that you can’t prevent a determined arsonist, but the reality is that the vast majority of arson attacks can either be deterred, or their effects controlled. All businesses are potential targets for deliberate fires. As arson is not always a visible danger, special consideration must be taken to spot potential risks and appropriate measures taken to remove, or reduce the risks.”

Such measures include:

  • Keeping rubbish bins at least 10m from the building;
  • Ensuring raw materials are delivered to the site on an ‘as-needed’ basis;
  • Making sure all doors and windows are secured at the end of each day; and
  • Safely storing any flammable materials.

Smith explained: “Fires need combustible materials in order to develop and spread. Arsonists often set fire to waste storage outside property in wheelie bins, skips, or pallets. Although it may be more convenient to have easy access to rubbish bins, materials should be kept at least 10m away from the building, as this will limit the fire spreading to the rest of the building.”

He added: “Many large fires are started out of business hours, often at night. Where premises are not continuously occupied, a named individual should be made responsible for securing the building at the end of each working day. Doors and windows should be secure, alarm systems on, and combustible materials and flammable liquids safely stored away.

“It is not surprising that a significant proportion of businesses fail following a determined arson attack. Preventing or reacting to small incidents can avoid a major loss happening.”

* ABI Fire Policy report Tackling Fire: A Call for Action 2009

5 – see also Hilary Ross’s feature article on this case, ‘Paying with fire’
8    BS 5588-12:2004 – Fire precautions in the design, construction and use of buildings – Part 12: Managing fire safety
9    Building Regulations – Approved Document B (Fire Safety) 2006 Edition
11    BS 9999:2008 – Code of practice for fire safety in the design, management and use of buildings

Ed Hall is a director of Turner & Townsend, heading up the health & safety team in the North – see page 4 for more details.

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13 years ago

reference 10 the government website :

Can I do it myself?
Yes. We believe that, in many cases, those with the responsibility for premises are likely to be best placed to maintain fire safety precautions and understand and address the risk to lives and property that fire represents to those working there or visiting.
Under the FSO, the duty to carry out and implement a fire risk assessment lies with the responsible person. Achieving fire safety is often a matter of common sense.