One Fire Away

Too many UK commercial and public buildings fall short of the explicit fire safety standards, says Andrew Cooper.

THE GLOBAL HSE Group – a specialist in retrofitting fire engineering solutions – often gets involved with projects where there has been a serious breach regarding enforcement, stepping in quickly to resolve serious building fire safety issues.

Fire protection is not given the due care and attention it deserves; there is urgent need for a change in legislation and a requirement for greater enforcement. We’ve seen numerous disasters over the years and each one has resulted in a change in legislation, but will it take a major disaster for that to happen in the fire protection industry, and who is liable? Given modern building techniques, the lack of fire protection and in some cases negligence, something will happen sooner or later!

However, until legislation changes, the fire protection industry needs to be more vocal about the risks. Everyone needs to take this responsibility more seriously, from architects and designers to building owners, investors and facilities managers. They need to be made aware that their decisions could claim lives, cause significant brand damage and put their business at risk. And, if they have not made adequate provision for fire protection systems, they need to know they could face liability running into hundreds of millions of pounds.

Salutary examples

In a 19-floor hotel that underwent a major refurbishment, builders had ripped out the existing corridor walls and reinstated them with timber stud. The builders then lined the timber stud frame with plasterboard up to the suspended ceiling line, which left all the rooms on a floor open and exposed. Furthermore, on most floors, only one side of the wall was actually lined out, which does not conform with the manufacturers’ specification – identifying how the wall is to be constructed to achieve the desired level of fire resistance. The corridors (the only means of escape) were heavily compromised in the event of a fire,
both from fire and cold smoke.

Another example is a local authority social housing project, in which fire doors were replaced at great expense, but as the installers opted for a standard door set size, there were gaps of 40 to 200mm between the frame and the aperture once fitted. Totally negating the exercise, the fitters simply covered the gaps with plastic architraves. What is the point of spending the best part of £1,000 on an FD30 fire doorset if you are not completing it to the right aperture?

When a fire spread from one flat to adjoining flats above and below through the door aperture, further investigation of the block indicated a second serious fire safety risk: a bin chute system interconnecting the 80 flats with the potential for fire and smoke to pass through every chute, and potentially all the rooms, because of gaps in the brick cavity that met
in each flat’s meter cupboard.

And fire safety was totally overlooked in the £15 million refit of an important public building. Stud walls were not extended above the ceiling grid sufficiently to the underside of the soffit. There were gaps of up to half a metre the full length of the building.

When we carry out fire risk assessments on more than 2,000 buildings a year, we witness serious failings at every stage of a building’s lifecycle: design, commissioning and maintenance. While it is a life safety requirement, unfortunately, fire protection sits quietly in the background and you don’t realise until you need it.

Fire safety strategy

The fire safety strategy needs serious consideration at the design and architectural stage. It dictates how the building will perform in the event of a fire and helps specify the fire engineering solution required. The minimum regulatory guidance is for life safety; asset protection would only be a fortunate consequence.

Many building owners are principally concerned with life safety, the requirement being to provide a safe means of escape and get them out of the building. In the case of a life safety strategy, the clients specify the target and goals they wish to achieve, stipulating for example, a 30-minute or a 60-minute wall, a particular means of escape, or for high risk rooms (eg operating theatres or accommodation housing vulnerable people) to be protected.

For other owners, the strategy may be about asset protection. This is more evident when private equity investors are involved who want reassurance that their assets are going to be protected. The asset protection strategy requires a more robust solution, the focus being on ensuring the building survives a fire and can be made good again. A server room, for example, may require a high level of protection to ensure business continuity and survivability.

Failure at build stage

Very few buildings we inspect are compliant with their own fire safety strategies. It seems to fall by the wayside at the build stage. Modern methods of construction are also introducing fire risks because of value engineering, where people don’t fully understand the implications of their decisions, especially when linked with lean design.

Technical specifications are seldom included in tenders. And, with the main focus on driving down costs, significant risk is built in from the outset. In a few years, there will be no evidence of the original fire safety intention, due to the original compromises and subsequent alterations made over the years.

Design trends

The latest trends in building design don’t help either, particularly when insufficient attention is paid to fire safety aspects, eg the move towards open plan spaces, which drives the placement of services in the roof space with a suspended ceiling. Buildings from the 1960s and 1970s have purpose-built voids for services, but more services are required today: air-conditioning, ventilation, cooling, data, telecoms, water, energy supply and on-site energy generation, lifts and escalators, as well as fire protection systems.

Critical construction stages

More consideration needs to be given to fire safety at critical stages of a building’s construction because of the fragmentation of the UK construction industry and the large numbers of diverse stakeholders providing input into a building project. Furthermore, information that should be passed on from design to build and then maintenance is invariably lost, despite it being a regulatory requirement (Regulation 38) for the original contractor to pass on the fire protection details of
the build.

Safe levels

However, the risks aren’t purely at the design and build stage alone. Once a building has been commissioned, maintenance activities may compromise the fire protection system further. Seemingly minor changes to the building fabric may adversely impact on the original fire safety strategy. Workers may unwittingly remove or damage the fire safety material, or compromise the ‘fire safe’ compartmentalisation structure by breaking through walls or apertures to install or maintain services.

Fire safety engineering contractors need to get involved at an early stage, as they have a vital role to play in educating building maintenance and facilities management teams so that they know how to manage the building going forward. On completion of a fire safety engineering project, contractors must hand over detailed information about the installation (as required by Regulation 38) so that the client knows exactly what materials were used, where and why. The ‘handover’ should include accurate drawings that reflect the work done, a detailed specification that matches the drawings – with supporting engineering judgements, as well as test evidence.

Taking ownership

The aim is to make it easy for facilities management to own the handover information, so that it doesn’t get forgotten. Maintenance teams need to easily find and act on the information when and where they need it, especially when they plan to refurbish and upgrade, alter the internal fabric or even go about day-to-day maintenance of the building that may alter the fire safety fabric. Facilities management needs to know:

  • how to maintain fire protection levels
  • what materials have been installed and where
  • which materials are compatible
  • why a particular material was installed
  • why they should not ‘mix and match’ materials

Before embarking on a project, both the client and contractor need to have a thorough understanding of what the fire strategy of the structure is, and from that information, the contractor should produce a clear specification for the works. A variety of stakeholders also need to be engaged to ensure everyone understands the fire safety strategy and the role they have to play in ensuring future compliance. In any given project they will work with the local authority, fire services, equity investors, consultants, the client’s advisors, architects and designers, maintenance teams, insurance companies, and the enforcement authority.

Third party accreditation

The serious lack of regulation in the industry is a major shortcoming in the sector. Other than a third party accreditation scheme, which is voluntary, the industry is largely self-regulated. As a result, only a third of contractors are registered with a scheme, with the majority not monitored or checked. Global HSE’s petition is for all fire safety contractors to be registered with a third party scheme, such as FIRAS.

Another concern is that the industry is seen to employ people who aren’t adequately trained and skilled to do the job, or who don’t fully understand the different engineering solutions that have to be applied to a structure. Working in ‘live’ environments means that it is just as important for a workforce to have ‘softer’ skills, paying attention to language, attire, cleanliness and housekeeping.

The building industry is still far too complacent about fire safety and it has often paid lip service to fire engineering. They have been too cost centred, with not enough focus on quality, certification and competence. We need urgent regulation of the industry, or some form of licensing of fire safety contractors to be put in place.

Legislation is required across the board – everyone from designers and architects to the construction industry needs to be educated, and the levels of competency and training should be raised significantly. If we don’t get to grips with this, insurance premiums will reflect the fact that this industry isn’t properly managed.

Andrew Cooper is MD of Global HSE