Fire safety after Grenfell: Where is the reform?

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Tom Brookes, managing director of Lindum Fire Services and chair of the FSA, discusses the drastic need for a ‘radical systemic overhaul’ when it comes to fire safety in buildings.

On 14 June 2017, in the capital city of modern, apparently safety-conscious Britain, a structural fire claimed 72 lives at Grenfell Tower. It was the worst UK residential fire since the Second World War.

In the months following the fire, former chair of the Health and Safety Executive Dame Judith Hackitt was tasked with drafting the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safetyto address the flaws in the system which allowed the disaster to happen.

In December 2018, the government published its plan to deliver the recommendations made in Dame Hackitt’s review, to which ECA and the Fire and Security Association (FSA) made a number of influential recommendations.

Whilst lacking detail about how exactly a new regulatory system would work, housing secretary James Brokenshire has said that the current system is “not fit for purpose” and that “a radical systemic overhaul” is required. Whilst also admitting this will take time, government is keen that industry leads the way, with the first tranche of consultations due this spring. 

Tougher sanctions, safer buildings

ECA and the FSA welcome the government’s announcement that the new regulatory system will aim to introduce stronger sanctions and enforcement powers. This would go a long way towards preventing and punishing wrongdoing and help to set the standard for all. 

The expertise of the Health and Safety Executive, Local Authority Building Control, the Fire and Rescue Service, plus others will be drawn together to form a new ‘Joint Regulator Group’ to pilot new approaches to sanctioning, in advance of any new legislation. 

A regulatory ‘gateway’ concept will be trialled, drawing parallels with practice in other industries. In practice, this means that at every stage of a building’s life, duty holders will need to collect, hold, analyse and make available data on fire safety, creating what’s been described as a digital ‘golden thread’.

ECA and the FSA will be actively helping to guide the electrotechnical industry through the range of technical solutions available, to help achieve this ‘digital by default’ approach.

Setting the bar

A primary goal of the Hackitt review and the government’s implementation plan is to develop ajoined-up competency framework for professionals in all industries involved in a building’s lifecycle – design, construction, maintenance and fire, to name a few.

Fortunately, the electrotechnical and fire/security sectors already benefit from having set up one, well-established competence benchmark, widely known as the Electrotechnical Standard and the Fire, Emergency and Security Standard (FESS), respectively. 

In other words, for each sector, there is only one bar to clear, but it is sufficiently high to show the competence of those who pass it.

The standard can be achieved either by completing a full-term apprenticeship or through recognised accredited prior learning. However, both routes involve a rigorous and comprehensive level of written and practical assessments. 

 Over the next few months, government intends to take a view on how to deliver such a system for the wider construction sector. The system is expected to mandate the use of sufficiently qualified professionals who can demonstrate that their skills are up to date.

The road to safer buildings may be a long one, but we need to get on with it, and fast. Government, industry and trade bodies such as ECA and the FSA are making significant steps in the right direction, to help ensure that a tragedy like Grenfell never happens again.