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Competence with Fire Risk Assessment

Monday 25th March 2019


By Stephen Adams, BAFE Chief Executive

A raft of significant and important changes affecting those responsible for both residential and commercial buildings has been instigated by the official investigation into the June 2017 Grenfell fire, along with the government’s recent response to this – published shortly before Christmas 2018.
A wide-ranging shake-up in legislation is set to usher in a step change in current arrangements, including fire risk assessments. Following the Grenfell tragedy, which claimed 72 lives – the greatest loss of life in a residential fire in a century – and injured more than 70 others, the subsequent review of building regulations and fire safety conducted by Dame Judith Hackitt revealed crucial problems including a lack of understanding of the roles and responsibilities of those engaged in the life-cycle of a building.
A fundamental shortfall in the competency of individuals, during both the design and construction phases of a building, and after it is occupied and being maintained, was underlined by the final Hackitt report (‘Building a Safer Future’) that was published in May 2018.
The review’s conclusions also include a need to better inform and engage residents in building safety issues about their homes, together with a recent consultation on building regulations fire safety guidance (Approved Document B) and a separate Spring 2019 consultation covering a range of issues including the important area of fire risk assessments. The creation of ‘duty holders’ with future responsibilities/accountabilities under law for building safety is also included in the Hackitt review’s report.

Risk assessment shake-up

The report underlines how a current requirement under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 for the ‘Responsible Person’ to regularly undertake a fire risk assessment of a building’s common parts does not mean that broader risk management, including structural safety of the whole building, is required – a significant omission needing to be addressed.
Moreover, the review heard that in practice fire risk assessments often consist of little more than a ‘tick box’ exercise undertaken by someone without a demonstrable competence of fire safety. To address such significant concerns, the Hackitt report proposes a fresh regulatory framework involving a new Joint Competent Authority (JCA) – comprising local authority building standards, fire and rescue authorities, and the Health and Safety Executive – to oversee better management of safety risks in buildings through their entire life cycle.
In terms of building occupation and maintenance, the report concluded that the present regulatory system is not fit for purpose for higher risk residential buildings, with key drivers for this deficiency including overlapping regulatory frameworks (namely the Housing Act and Fire Safety Order), the lack of expectation for building safety to be proactively maintained over the building life cycle, and the difficulty of identifying a duty holder with responsibility for the structural and fire safety of the whole building.
Given these factors, the report urges a systemic overhaul to achieve safe building outcomes, with buildings being considered as a system requiring every aspect of design, construction, refurbishment and maintenance in order to prioritise safety. An outcomes-based approach (meaning regulations define the outcomes the building work needs to achieve) is recommended instead of a prescription-based one (whereby the law states how every aspect of building work must be undertaken).
This new approach would ensure that the whole building is properly, regularly and proactively considered by the duty holder against the principles of what is reasonably practicable to reduce risk. By removing current legislative and regulatory uncertainty and overlap, the report adds, it would also ensure that the duty holder and regulator roles are clear and transparent.

Government response

Reacting to the Hackitt report, the government’s published response, in December 2018 – entitled ‘Building a Safer Future – an implementation plan’ – has been a positive one, with pledges being made to carry out the necessary reforms. These include the options for a more effective regulatory framework to oversee the new regime, including the potential of establishing a statutory Joint Competent Authority (JCA) that would sit at the centre of a stronger regulatory framework for buildings in scope.
In the context of this forward looking government commitment, a proposal in the Hackitt report regarding the required nomination by each building’s duty holder of a ‘building safety manager’, with the relevant skills, knowledge and expertise (including the need to bring in expertise, if required, to undertake work including fire risk assessments), has been included among the wider government response.
Fire risk assessors are among the “suitable, qualified professionals” the Hackitt report recommends being capable of demonstrating their skills are up to date and the government agrees, promising to review industry proposals and legislate if necessary to ensure compliance.

"Reasonably practicable" action

Hackitt proposes building on the current Fire Safety Order by adopting a ‘So far as is reasonably practicable’ outcomes-based approach, which would allow the JCA to effectively regulate by placing the responsibility on duty holders to exercise their judgement when making the safety case to the regulator.
‘So far as is reasonably practicable’ is a narrower term than ‘physically possible’, the Hackitt report points out, with the presumption always being on the duty holder to manage safety and reduce the risk. This approach has become common practice in managing health and safety, and regulating safety concerns in high hazard facilities such as large-scale chemical plants and offshore oil and gas installations.
The most effective way for each duty holder to demonstrate how they are reducing building safety risk so far as is reasonably practicable is through the use of third party certificated contractors. Accredited service providers enable responsible persons/duty holders to prove that they have seen independent evidence of the contractor’s competency to fulfill the required works – such as a fire risk assessment.
So checking that a contractor holds third party certification in the specific service required is clearly a ‘reasonably practicable’ action, in BAFE’s view. It demonstrates that the person in charge of fire safety within your building is taking the appropriate responsible steps to ensure they are competent to fulfil their requirements.

The issue of competency is not just an important one for end users and service providers, since insurers share an interest in this area too. Third party certification provides a means of ensuring that competent engineers/maintenance companies and related fire service providers have been employed. This assurance includes criteria including training, along with adherence to relevant standards, regulations, industry guides and codes of practice.

Certificated competence

Among a range of fire-related systems and services, the important issues of safety and competence are interlinked. As government fire safety risk assessment advice states, third party certification schemes for fire protection products and related services are an effective means of providing the fullest possible assurances, offering a level of quality, reliability and safety that non-certificated products may lack. This does not mean goods and services that are not third-party approved are less reliable, but there is no obvious way in which this can be demonstrated. “Third-party quality assurance can offer comfort, both as a means of satisfying you that goods and services you have purchased are fit for purpose, and as a means of demonstrating that you have complied with the law,” the advice adds.
Turning to the requirements for fulfilling a fire risk assessment, if the responsible person/duty holder doesn’t have the expertise or time necessary they must appoint a ‘competent person’ to help. The National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) notes that no matter who carries out the fire risk assessment, duty holders retain responsibility for ensuring the assessment fulfils legislative requirements. Even when employing a contractor to help with an assessment or additional safety measures, “reasonable checks should be made to ensure that the contractor is competent to properly undertake the work.”
However, the definition of ‘competent person’ is not the clearest of terms within the fire safety arena. Help in clarifying it is provided by the Fire Rusk Assessment Competency Council’s ‘Guide to Choosing a Competent Fire Risk Assessor’. Published on the NFCC’s website, as official guidance to help meet fire safety obligations, this guide states: “The Fire Risk Assessment Competency Council recommends the use of fire risk assessment companies, including sole traders, which are third party certificated to appropriate schemes operated by certification bodies which have been UKAS accredited to certificate against such schemes.”
Many health and safety managers are fully aware of third party certification within certain arenas but may not be fully up to speed on this topic when it comes to fire safety. At present, unlike gas work, there is still no mandatory requirement to use specifically registered providers for their fire safety requirements.
In lieu of this, the industry has established registers of third party certificated fire safety providers, most notably the BAFE Fire Safety Register, as BAFE’s Chief Executive, Stephen Adams explains: “One of our primary roles within the industry is to promote third party certification. We believe our schemes, developed by BAFE alongside industry experts, best represent competency when delivering a fire related service for a particular discipline.
“BAFE works with multiple UKAS accredited third party certification bodies to deliver these assessments and offer independent evidence of a provider’s competency. It’s quite simple: if you can prove your competency to perform specific work you’re in. If not, then you cannot be BAFE registered.”

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