The current testing environment

7 September 2018

David Sibert, head of the special projects group at the FPA, discusses the current testing environment and what the FPA can offer

THERE IS supposed to be an ancient Chinese curse, which reads: ‘May you live in interesting times’. After the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower last year, those of us in the fire industry have certainly been ‘living in interesting times’. The curse appeared to point its crooked finger at me when I was forced to resign from my previous job, although in the end resignation gave me the opportunity to take up the challenging – but very rewarding – role of head of the special projects group (SPG) at the FPA.

As head of the SPG, I have responsibility for the FPA’s fire research and experimental laboratory, as well as its sprinkler testing service and its new BS 8414 facade testing facility. The role is particularly high profile right now because genuine fire research and experimentation is a part of the fire safety world that has been much neglected over recent years.

Too often in the past, those who specify, use and approve construction products have simply relied on the results of British and European standard tests to tell them whether or not products are ‘safe’. But the construction industry moves forwards at such a fast pace that materials and techniques are regularly not sufficiently challenged by these tests, which are ponderously slow to react to change.

In some cases, no suitable test exists at all.

In areas like weather protection and structural stability, all those in the construction supply chain normally want to be certain that building products will meet or even exceed minimum standards. It is almost inevitable that immediately on completion, real world challenges created by weather and occupation mean that building products will be robustly tested, and any failings will quickly manifest themselves through leaks and cracks.

But fire safety isn’t the same. The truth is that it is unlikely that a building will ever be challenged by a major fire, so the less reputable end of the supply chain can keep its fingers crossed and duck under the minimum fire safety standards, knowing that failings in fire safety systems will probably never be actually tested.

Fortunately though, in the ‘interesting times’ that we now live, some in the construction and construction product industries are recognising that details of building design need to undergo a more robust, more bespoke fire test than called for by the standard tests. Only that way will the limits of fire performance be tested; only that way will a manufacturer or installer have the confidence that their work will perform well in a real world fire as well as in a standard test.

The FPA’s laboratory is ready and able to deliver the kind of fire testing that can provide such real world confidence in construction. By working closely with industry, we are able to develop unique fire scenarios that replicate real world challenges. And with the facilities at our disposal at our Blockley laboratory, we can work at the small, the medium or the large scale.

Our laboratory also carries out research and experimentation for the insurance industry funded through the RISCAuthority scheme, but my disappointment is that even today, there is precious little other ‘blue sky’ fire research being funded in the UK.

It is pleasing to see some in the construction industry seeking out greater assurance about the fire performance of their products in the way that I have described above; but it is sad to see that, even after Grenfell and the subsequent review of the fire safety industry, there is still no national funding stream – free of vested interest – that supports experimentation and research into the fire performance of building materials, products and systems.

David Sibert is head of the special projects group at the FPA

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The current testing environment