• Maria Anderson
  • 11 June 2012

Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 - A reactive approach

I was recently asked to do a presentation about the Fire Safety Order, and its benefits to businesses. The Order has been law for more than five years, yet continually a lot of businesses are not getting it right.

In preparation for my presentation I had to do quite a bit of research and the statistics published by the Government seemed like a good starting point.

But before I started babbling about numbers and statistics I thought it would be good to know a bit more about the history of the Order and how it developed. I was not surprised to find that the history of fire safety legislation in Great Britain has been always very reactive, and it seems that we are still not learning the relevant lessons.

The ability to be in control of fire has been part of our DNA for more than 500,000 years; it has changed the way we live our lives, cooking, heating our houses, being able to manoeuvre during the night, fighting animals and creating tools, but, for all the great benefits fire can bring, it can also bring disaster. With time fire became part of the day-to-day life of towns, but there were times when fire would destroy complete communities. A significant date to remember is of course the Great Fire of London in 1666, which claimed five-sixths of the town. Since that time, Regulations have reacted to big disasters.

History continues to confirm this; the Factories Act was amended after the fire at Eastwood Mills, Keighley in February 1956; the ‘Licensing Act’ was amended after a fire in the Top Storey Club in Bolton, Lancashire, in 1961; the ‘Office, Shops and Railway Premises Act’ was amended after a fire in William Henderson and Sons Department store in Liverpool in 1960; the ‘Fire Safety and Safety of Places of Sport Act’ was born in the aftermath of the fire at Bradford City football ground in 1985 and the ’Fire Precautions (Sub-surface Railway Stations) Regulations’ came into force after the tragedy at Kings Cross station in 1987.

Has the Order been a means and an end to this cycle? Well, the Order has replaced over 70 pieces of fire safety legislation with the aim of simplifying and consolidating legislation, but primarily to move fire safety forward with other health and safety legislation where, in most cases, a responsible person has a specific duty to risk assess the premises.

Since the introduction of the Order in England and Wales, other similar pieces of legislation have been created in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Great Britain has seen a reduction of 25% on the total of calls made to the fire brigade, a 21% reduction in false alarms, a 35% reduction in outdoor fires and a 22% reduction in fires in commercial buildings, so statistics are clearly demonstrating the effectiveness of the new fire safety duties and what can be achieved if they are properly implemented.

Worryingly, although there is evidence to suggest that the duties imposed upon the ‘responsible person’ by the Order assist in preventing a fire, research shows that up to 40% of businesses are failing to conduct a fire risk assessment (AVIVA). In 2010-2011, fire officers in England carried out 84,600 audits (only 5% of registered premises), in which they found that only 56% were satisfactory, meaning that 44% of businesses in England were failing to comply with the requirements of the Order. There is clearly a need for the Government to act and convince senior bosses it is in their best interests to comply.  

In recent years we have seen publicly broadcast prosecutions that should send a message out, with the most recent (June 2012) affecting Asda Stores Limited, which has been ordered to pay more than £55,000 in fines and costs for committing serious fire safety breaches at a store in Berkshire. It is disturbing that a company with these resources and a global presence is still getting it wrong.

Being proactive about fire safety, and carrying out fire risk assessments can minimise the likelihood of a fire, which in all cases makes good business sense (80% of businesses affected by a fire will fail to continue trading). The Order aims to be proactive with all efforts made to prevent fire in the first instance, but with limited resources available from the Fire Authorities it is very difficult for the Government to be proactive.

How can we make sure the message gets across to ensure that businesses become more proactive about preventing a fire?