Forget waiting three years for the implementation of building regulations

4 April 2019

Forget waiting for the implementation of building regulations that could take at least three years to become law - if we really want to ensure “another Grenfell” fire never happens again, this is what needs to happen. Now.

With less than three months to go until the second anniversary of the worst loss of life from fire in the UK since the second world war, the Grenfell Tower tragedy, I was recently asked to address a meeting of installers of fire alarm and detection systems for my view on where the fire sector is and particularly  how they are likely to be affected by any of the changes already announced,  or are likely to be announced in the immediate future, as a result of that appalling tragedy.
 
I think it is worth reminding ourselves of where we were with fire prior to June 2017. 
 
At that time fire was very much the good news story. 
 
The shift to preventative activity which fire and rescue services had embraced around the turn of the century had paid dividends. Deaths and injuries had fallen by around 60%, and calls to fire and rescue services were down by a similar number. 
 
Civil servants fielded very few awkward questions about fire, and as far as I can ascertain as far as Whitehall was concerned - with fire it was job done.
 
Sadly in my view the consequence of this was that they took their eye off the ball. Austerity began to be felt in the fire services – it appeared that the attitude was that with demand falling - fire and rescue services needed fewer resources.  Support for fire policy for the fire service in Whitehall, for the regulatory reform order and for fire in the built environment, dwindled to virtually nothing. We didn’t have a major building regulations review relating to fire for more than 12 years, despite building materials and our methods of building changing unrecognisably during that period.
 
For some the signs that something was amiss had been there for some time. Bigger buildings made of more environmentally friendly combustible materials combined with new response times, and a changing attitude to risk by the fire and rescue services, meant that whilst the insurance industry was seeing fewer fires, they were getting larger - much larger. At the Fire Protection Association we tried to alert officials and ministers of this, but we weren’t heard. And then in the early hours of the morning of June 14th “Grenfell” happened. Words failed us.
 
On the face of it nearly two years since the fire, government action has been pretty woeful. 
 
The only thing to apparently change is the ban on combustible cladding and that took virtually 18 months to be implemented.  In reality however, I have to concede that there has actually been quite a lot going on. 
 
We have had the first phase of the public inquiry with its resultant harrowing evidence being heard. And we have had Dame Judith Hackitt’s “Building a safer future – an independent review of building regulations and fire safety”, published in May 2018.
 
I am told that we should expect the full government response to “the Hackitt Review” some time before the second anniversary in June of this year. This has been expertly crafted by the 200 new civil servants drafted into the Building Safety Programme Unit at the Ministry for housing, communities and local government (MHCLG). 
 
I must admit that it troubles me that announcements from government seem to be centred around anniversary dates rather than being evidence-led and following considered debate. Nevertheless the government is undoubtedly under some pressure to make a building safety statement on or before 14 June this year. 
 
What should we really do to make sure that we don’t lose another life in a tall buildings fire?
 
A ban on single staircases as the sole means of escape for buildings in excess of 18m seems to be an easy win for me.
 
And personally I agree with and believe that the case for sprinklers in tall buildings has been fully made – they’re proven to put out fires without the need for fire and rescue service intervention and will undoubtedly be effective at protecting society’s most vulnerable.
 
So that is two approaches, but what else could the government do immediately to improve building safety, with little debate and without the need for a detailed regulatory impact assessment which has so often been the killer for sensible fire safety regulatory change in the past?
 
Without going into the whys and wherefores of where we are with a “stay put policy”, what is crystal clear to me is that when fire breaks out and starts to behave in a manner that we can’t predict or becomes beyond control  - we require a means of staging either full scale or limited evacuation of buildings. The use of intelligent multi-sensor detectors and programmable programmes exists already – we just need to ensure that trade certification bodies and government actually endorse it. These systems and solutions need to be fitted now without the need for building regulations change. We have residents concerned, we have landlords confused and we have waking watch systems that are expensive to maintain and may be of questionable value as and when required. This is a change in my view that the industry can and should propose. Now.
 
The biggest challenge that Hackitt gave the sector was around the subject of competence. I am sure that the work that is being done feeds well into the work of Hackitt’s Industry Response Group and the Construction Industry Council led initiative on competence, but this will take years to have a meaningful effect. For me there is a ready-made way available immediately, based on competence. And that is third-party certification.
 
Third-party certification is the easiest and simplest way for a specifier or end user to have the assurance they require that the chosen supplier is fit for purpose or competent; that the system and the system design is risk appropriate and the equipment that makes up the kit of parts has been tested to the appropriate standards and checked in the factory and the field to ensure that what is being made and sold is the same specification as the samples sent for testing. The mandatory use of third-party accredited products and services for fire protection should be a given - it should be a complete no brainer but it isn’t - and so we have to ask why?
 
Instinctively I feel that using a third-party accredited installer for my fire alarm system should give me the confidence of competence, but I would also assume that it would minimise the chances of false alarm.
 
So why is that important – as far as I can ascertain, over the past five years the number of false alarms attended by the fire and rescue services in England has held steady at 150,000 a year. 400 every day and four in the time that you are reading this! That is of course totally unacceptable, it is probably unsustainable in a time when fire and rescue services, as with all public services are coming under increasing budgetary pressures. 
 
I have sat on the BRAC ADB review group for more than 15 years – the reviews have been so infrequent that we haven’t had that much to do! But please be assured BRAC reacts well to strong evidence and I am sure that without too much effort you could commission a meaningful research project that could put this to bed with BRAC. Should the evidence be strong enough, I would go one further and present it to the Treasury – imagine offering a solution that could reduce fire and rescue call outs by 75,000 or 100,000 a year – it would be irresistible and we could then have a model in fire – dictated by the centre which looked very similar to the police model for intruder detection systems.
 
I am convinced that with mandatory third-party certification we are pushing at an open door, we have urged BAFE to explore the options for an insured scheme. That will take time to establish but in truth any conclusion to the current building regulations review is likely to be 2-3 years away - at least.
 
In the meantime we are trying to encourage the Home Office, as guardians of the Fire Safety Order and MHCLG, the government department for building regulations, to introduce a statutory defence for anyone using a third-party certificated supplier of goods or services including fire risk assessments. Clearly this is not as powerful as it being mandatory however, it is my understanding that this approach could be introduced immediately and could apply to both the fire safety order and building regulations alike, if adopted it could be a very powerful tool indeed. It could save lives – as well as homes, businesses, schools. And it could do this now.
 
Jonathan O’Neill, OBE, is managing director of the Fire Protection Association. He will be speaking on Third-party Certification as a route to compliance  - at the Building a safer future seminar in central London on 29th April and more information can be found here.
 
Forget waiting three years for the implementation of building regulations