Ensuring your fire risks are adequately managed
The recent shocking fire in Grenfell Tower, London should have focused the minds of all persons undertaking fire risk assessment works in the UK. As fire risk assessors, this incident should make us review what we look at and what we take into consideration when carrying out an assessment. As always, we should question our own competence to undertake the particular assessment concerned.
The first obvious statement to make is that any fire risk assessment must ensure compliance with Article 9 of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005. Specifically, we must ensure that we have covered the ‘General Fire Precautions’ required and relevant to the premises we are assessing.
The ‘General Fire Precautions’:
(a) measures to reduce the risk of fire on the premises and the risk of the spread of fire on the premises;
(b) measures in relation to the means of escape from the premises;
(c) measures for securing that, at all material times, the means of escape can be safely and effectively used;
(d) measures in relation to the means for fighting fires on the premises;
(e) measures in relation to the means for detecting fire on the premises and giving warning in case of fire on the premises; and
(f) measures in relation to the arrangements for action to be taken in the event of fire on the premises, including —
(i) measures relating to the instruction and training of employees; and
(ii) measures to mitigate the effects of the fire.
Looking at the above:
The ‘risk of fire’ is the risk of a fire occurring, so we must look at the fire hazards present, the likelihood and severity of any fire that could occur, and remove all hazards possible, but still allowing the business to operate.
The risk of fire spread includes of course fire and smoke. As an assessor, this is the subject of major concern in a lot of buildings. We need to consider the risk of fire and smoke spread inside buildings, external spread from building to building, and of course external spread on the building itself. My experience shows me that fire structure and fire compartmentation is abused in many buildings. As an example, I have recently undertaken a series of fire safety building surveys and found numerous failings of the fire structure per building! Unfortunately, this is not unusual. In many cases this is in buildings where fire risk assessments have been carried out for a number of years previously, but no one has highlighted the issues. As assessors, we MUST at the very least lift ceiling tiles to check above false ceilings, look inside service risers and check inside roof spaces and other voids. No, we probably cannot check every bit of fire structure within the time frames set, but we should at least undertake a good sample assessment of various areas and comment accordingly. We also need to have an understanding of the materials being used within the building and an appreciation of how they will behave in a fire. This may include research into the material itself, the way it has been used and installed within the building and the issues and concerns this can raise.
The means of escape from fire is the technical bit, where we need to look at travel distances, exit widths, numbers of people involved and many other subjects, benchmarking to whichever standards or guides are applicable to the type of building we are undertaking the assessment on. At all times, we should recognise the potential dangers of ‘cherry picking’ from different standards to achieve the outcome we (or the client) wants! Standards and guides are written as holistic documents and should be applied as such. Means of escape for people with disabilities is included in this subject; and no, we cannot just leave people in buildings to be rescued by the Fire Service.
Ensuring that the means of escape can be used at all material times will cover various subjects, such as security issues, emergency escape, lighting and others.
Any locking system that can only be opened by electronic means should unlock or release on operation of the fire alarm and may also unlock or release on power failure. But does it? Is there a ’green box’ override switch adjacent to such doors (on the correct side of door) and do the people in the building understand this system? I often find that a high proportion of staff in buildings do not know the purpose of the ‘green box’. If the building is open to the public, will staff be available to direct the public, as no one trains or educates the public in the use of the ‘green boxes’. I have lost count of the fire exits I have come across that have been incorrectly wired up, so that they lock shut on operation of the fire alarm system!
Emergency escape lighting is often inadequate in buildings. Has anyone ever walked the building and its escape routes during the hours of darkness with just the emergency escape lighting on? If so, could they see sufficiently well to evacuate the building safely? As an assessor, you often cannot truly assess this during daylight hours.
The means for fighting fires includes fire extinguishers (plus in some cases, fixed systems). Are there enough fire extinguishers and are they the correct type and in the right locations? Have a number of staff been trained and informed in the safe use of fire extinguishers, and have all staff been given basic information on the use of extinguishers? The split on who needs to know what should be driven by the company fire policy document.
Fire detection and fire warning systems are required in the majority of buildings. Is the system suitable for the type of building and the safety of the building occupants? Has the system been installed correctly and in line with standards? Common failings I see are exit routes out of buildings with no fire alarm manual call points by the doors, fire detectors covered with plastic covers (from the last building work!) and detectors being installed too far away from each other, so the system will not comply with standards. As assessors, we need to have an understanding of the systems in place and the standards applicable.
Instruction and training is in essence simplistic, in as much as we have a legal duty to train staff to undertake whatever tasks / roles / actions our fire procedures and fire management practices put in place. We also must ensure that staff are physically capable and competent to undertake these tasks and that we have given them the knowledge and skills to undertake the tasks safely. Of course, we need to be able to prove all these things! I find that a large number of companies fall down on providing evidence to demonstrate that they have trained staff correctly.
Mitigating the effects of fire includes the safety of people in the building and in the vicinity of the building. This aspect also legally links environmental issues to fire safety, so for example, as an assessor have we considered the drainage systems on site and where any water runoff from any fire would go? The organisation is legally responsible for any environmental damage caused by their fire!
The above is just a short summary of the many things that as good fire risk assessors we need to consider. On top of these issues there are many other subjects to consider, such as dangerous substances and young persons.
As I said at the start of this article, all fire risk assessors should ask themselves ‘Am I competent to undertake this assessment?’. What level of knowledge and experience do we have and does this make me competent for this particular task? Are there perceived knowledge shortfalls in my understanding of the various fire safety subjects involved? As an assessor, can you demonstrate your competence? What level of training (or experience) do you have to help you prove competence?
I often suggest to people that a good start point in demonstrating knowledge is to gain some form of qualification such as the NEBOSH Fire Safety and Risk Management Course, or a similar level of training. Once you have got a good knowledge baseline of the relevant fire safety subjects, you can then decide for example if you need to get approval as a competent fire risk assessor by going for a third party accredited scheme (of which there are various). As an individual, understand your own competence level and do not take on tasks that you are not competent to do. There is no shame in saying ‘Sorry, I cannot undertake that fire risk assessment for you.’ I have!
Clive Raybould M.I.Fire.E.
Fire Safety Consultant to International Workplace Ltd