Assistant Editor , SHP

October 12, 2023

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IOSH Conference

Mind the fire safety gap – complexity versus competence

Andrea White, Fire Engineer and Managing Director of AW Fire, told delegates that the gap between building complexity and competence in fire safety was increasing at IOSH’s Fire Risk Management Conference in September.

White began by sharing that her presentation was informed by her analysis of numerous reports including fire risk assessments, fire strategies and external wall assessments over recent years as part of her forensic fire engineering work.


Andrea White presenting at the IOSH Fire Risk Management Conference in September

She looked back at the post-war building phase and described a 1967 residential block of flats made with concrete floors and concrete on the outside, saying: “Concrete is non-combustible, if there was a fire it would be confined to that flat… it would have no opportunity to climb up the external walls”.

Highlighting what has changed regarding buildings built 50 years ago and today, she stated that: “We’re building with different materials, incorporating more combustible materials and we’re requiring higher levels of insulation.

“We have less robust building materials, which are more combustible. Historically we didn’t need to think so deeply about fire spread within, across and between buildings because we were building with non-combustible materials.”

White went on to mention that buildings are now built to functional requirements rather than prescription – a change, she said, which has allowed greater flexibility for architects to design buildings and spaces.

However, she queried whether the fire safety industry has adapted quickly enough to this development.

Keeping up with increasingly complex guidance – an impossible task?

The transition to more flexible building requirements has also meant that guidance has changed. What used to be one document of around 50 pages, is now a multitude of  documents, many of them comprising hundreds of pages each.  Guidance has become more subjective and more challenging to interpret:

“Now there’s judgement involved in fire safety design instead of just following a prescription…keeping up with this information could end up being a full-time job.”

She questioned whether it is reasonable to expect one fire safety professional to be aware of and always on top of this amount of guidance.

Is the quality of training diminishing?

White told delegates that she had witnessed during her career a focus shift from exam-based qualifications to attendance-based certificates. As a result, she has seen as gradual decline in competence from those who are deemed qualified.

She then questioned the quality of teaching, asking delegates: “Are we giving students access to knowledgeable tutors who have a good grasp of that subject? I would say to you ‘sometimes’; but often, through my experience… those teaching the subjects are only qualified to the level of training they are giving and not sufficiently beyond that level to be able to answer students’ questions.”


Image credit: Andriy Popov/AlamyStock

Industry competence, she suggested, has ended up as an ‘incomplete puzzle’, where fire professionals use LinkedIn posts or conferences to try to fill gaps in their knowledge and stay on top of the latest requirements.

She concluded by questioning who decides what topics should be covered in training courses and whether content is compared or mapped to existing competency frameworks or skills required in particular roles.

“Are we operating within our competencies?”

To summarise, White concluded that the increased complexity of buildings, coupled with lower quality training and competence within the industry, has, in her opinion, created a fire safety gap: “The requirements to demonstrate competence have now decreased whilst building complexity has increased, and that leaves a gap.”

She urged delegates who undertake fire safety to carefully consider the limits of their own competence.  She asked delegates who oversee fire safety professionals to carry out due diligence of individuals executing fire safety work, and to make sure they understand the extent of knowledge demonstrated by those with particular certificates, qualifications, post nominals or professional registrations.

Also at the IOSH Fire Risk Management Conference, which took place in London at Informa’s HQ – SHP’s parent company – delegates heard from:

  • Ian Scott, Committee Member for fire risk group looked at navigating fire safety in the age of electric mobility
  • Chris Hall, Director at Sportsground and Events Group who discussed fire safety at public events
  • John Field, Head of Fire Safety at Imperial College London, decoded the latest fire safety legislation
  • A panel session, chaired by Anne Isaacs on women in fire safety with Lucy Cowell, Fire Safety Advisor, Imperial College, Helen Crompton MBE, Head of Safety & Risk Management, Derbyshire Fire & Rescue Service, Andrea WhiteGeorgina Williams, Senior Fire Engineer, Hydrock, John Field and Michael Woods, Fire Risk Management Group member at IOSH
  • Luke Lewis, Head of Corporate Resilience at Dudley Group NHS Foundation Trust, who discussed fire risk assessments

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Jo Robinson PgC CMIOSH
Jo Robinson PgC CMIOSH
9 months ago

I used to work with Andrea White, never met such a dedicated and hard working fire safety professional. She is absolutely right as always.

Jo Robinson PgC CMIOSH
Jo Robinson PgC CMIOSH
9 months ago

I had the great pleasure of working with Andrea, I have never met such a dedicated and knowledgeable professional on fire safety. Absolutely right as always. I think the training and competence issue is such an important issue which is often ignored or overlooked.

Andrew Floyd
Andrew Floyd
9 months ago

It’s not just Fire Safety. There is a dearth of competence and knowledge and very little peer review of any subject. Thank you Linked In. Google et al.