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April 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The implementation of fire safety law: a

call to action

 

Serious flaws in the system intended to prevent fire risk were highlighted recently at the Priory Hall apartment development and by fires and incidents at other locations. This prompts risk management consultant Sean Coleman to ask: do we need to update our fire safety laws?

 

There have been considerable changes in UK fire safety law, in particular the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, replaced most fire safety legislation with one simple order, but little has changed here.

 

Now any person who has some level of control in premises must take reasonable steps to reduce the risk from fire and make sure people can safely escape if there is a fire. In the UK much attention has been given to a number of tragedies. These include the Lakanal House social housing fire in 2009 in which six people died; the fire in 2004 at the Rosepark residential care home in Lanarkshire, which resulted in the deaths of 14 elderly residents; and the explosion at ICL Plastics in Glasgow in 2004, in which nine people were killed (see HSR September 2009).

 

IRISH FIRE SAFETY LAW

 

The law concerning fire safety in Ireland has evolved over many years. It initially applied to industrial and not to commercial premises, but following the Stardust nightclub tragedy, a new law, the Fire Services Act, was introduced in 1981. The Act was designed to apply to places of public assembly and not industrial premises. The Act focused on fire safety management rather than design.

 

It was not until the General Application Regulations 2007 that the Fire Services Act applied to all premises, bringing a common approach to all sectors and repealing the need for a certificate of means of escape of industrial premises. From the design perspective, it was not until 1992 that the Building Regulations were ratified, replacing draft regulations.

 

A series of fire guides were issued by the Department of Environment for places of public assembly. No such guides exist for factories.

 

In the meantime there has been a whole raft of guidance issued in the UK. Of particular note are the Fire Risk Assessment guides, free to download at www.communities.gov.uk/fire. Under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order in the UK, each premises must produce a fire risk assessment. No such law applies here but there is the more general requirement to carry out risk assessment and record significant findings.

 

BUILDING CONTROL REGULATIONS 2014

 

Most recently we have seen the introduction of the new Building Control (Amendment) Regulations (SI 9/2014). The Regulations were prompted as a result of Priory Hall. To download the Regulations, click on the following link:  http://www.irishstatutebook.ie/pdf/2014/en.si.2014.0009.pdf

 

The 2014 Regulations are intended to work in tandem with a Code of Practice for Inspecting and Certifying Buildings and Works,which will inform the assigned certifier, builder, design certifier and other parties, how to manage their respective roles, including the preparation of an inspection plan, carrying out inspections and ultimately certifying the works.

 

The final approved version of the Code was made available at the end of the first week in February 2014. Interestingly, there is no mention of fire specialists, only ancillary certifiers who will support the view of the assigned certifier.

 

To download the code, click on the following link:  http://www.asfpireland.ie/webdocs/Code%20of%20Practice%20Building%20Control%20Regulations%202014.pdf

 

CALL FOR AN INSPECTIONS REGIME

 

So, do we need to update the law?

 

I am not convinced that we should go down the UK way, as the standard of self-assessment is at least questionable. What I think is needed in both jurisdictions is a regime of checking, inspection and auditing, with subsequent action against those who do not comply. If designers, owners, developers and contractors know there is a serious regime of compliance monitoring, then they will more likely do the right thing in the first place.

 

Look at the HIQA example in the health sector, which has certainly cast a whole new light on standards. We have also greatly improved road safety through serious efforts on driver behaviour. Do we seriously think we would have improved without speed cameras, penalty points and random breath tests

 

I do not think we need a whole raft of new legislation and guides. We should pretty much follow the guides developed in the UK. What we need is enforcement through inspection, followed by action. This will drive the right behaviour.

 

I have seen cases where the design details submitted with a fire certificate application are far from what is actually built. At the Priory Hall development, dwellers had to leave their homes when the extent of the flaws became apparent several years after construction. As well as numerous build quality issues, the lack of fire-stopping forced residents to leave their homes in 2011 on safety grounds, never to return.

 

So must we wait for the inadequacies in fire safety to visit us again in the form of a tragedy before we act? We need a series of random inspections before handover and subsequent inspections in the course of a building’s lifetime. Such a system could be risk-based, with priority given to the higher exposures.

 

The new Code concerning certification suffers from a simple flaw. It is the developer or builder or owner who will pay the certifier. It is still a version of self-certification. Self-audit does not work in risk management practice, unless backed up by external audit. There is however the advantage that in the new system, certification relates to the finished article and involves all parties.

 

Two major problems remain:

 

§  What about all the properties already built: how will the shortcomings be addressed?

 

§  How will the fire risk management of the existing and new built stock be addressed?

 

CHECK

 

Next time you visit a hotel, hospital, school or even an underground car park, look out for the wedged fire doors, blocked exits and inadequate signage. Then ask who rings the fire brigade, where is the assembly point, how long before we investigate the alarm activation and before we ring the brigade? Where is the nearest hydrant? When was it last tested, if ever? Where is that extinguisher? Well of course, there it is serving its usual purpose holding open the fire door. What about that underground gas pipeline? Is it in good condition

 

It’s a simple enough theory that if there are several problems, then a major loss is far more probable. The motivation is not obvious to many because of the relatively low frequency of serious fires. However the impact can be severe. Look up Lakanal house and ICL Plastics, Glasgow (2004): click on the following link,

 

 http://www.hse.gov.uk/press/2009/e09057.htmor take a look at the video of The Station Night Club Fire  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OOzfq9Egxeo

 

Does it ever occur to us that in order for something to work, there has to be feedback: especially something where frequency is low? That something in this case is either good fire safety design and subsequent management, or that which we all fear: a nasty fire .So let’s have feedback from inspections and audits and not fires.

 

(Sean Coleman is founder and senior risk consultant with Coleman Risk Consulting. He has worked in the risk management field for more than 30 years, starting his career as a fire surveyor with Cigna Insurance Company in 1982. He is a member of NSAI standards committees. He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. website www.colemanrisk.ie.)

 

(Viewpoint is an occasional column in HSR, in which readers can offer their opinion on issues. The opinions offered are those of the writer only. Readers are invited to respond. Any readers wishing to submit an article for the Viewpoint column should contact the editor, Herbert Mulligan, either by phoning 01-6671152 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting  01-6671152 FREE  end_of_the_skype_highlighting or emailing This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

 

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