Term Time
What does the word ‘accreditation’ really mean? It is increasingly referred to; however, over the past four years, post Grenfell, it has frequently been misused within the fire sector, as various inquiries have reported back on required improvements in fire safety related areas, including building regulations changes.

The likely introduction of more specific responsibilities on building owners and managers has rightly focused attention, in turn, on the demonstrable advantages of using third party certificated fire safety system providers to meet future requirements.

Differentiating terms

However, misunderstandings over terminology in fire safety already exist and ‘accreditation’ is often mistakenly used when ‘certification’ or ‘approval’ is what is intended. The situation is also confused by some bodies referring to ‘accreditation schemes’ – terminology that ill-serves the public. Given the increasing market emphasis on certificated providers, which may extend to a statutory requirement on their use as more robust legislation is introduced, it is an appropriate time to highlight the difference in these terms.

In the UK, the United Kingdom Accreditation Service (UKAS) is the UK’s sole national accreditation body for undertaking mandatory and voluntary accreditation, and is appointed by the government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

UKAS is responsible for determining whether testing, inspection, calibration and certification services (often referred to as ‘conformity assessment’) providers have the necessary competency and integrity to act as part of the UK’s National Quality Infrastructure of standards, agreements, codes and regulations. The oversight of UKAS gives everyone affected a high level of confidence in conformity assessment regimes.

In the security and fire safety sectors, UKAS accredits certification bodies, which operate in accordance with international standards for accredited certification, overseeing certification schemes upon which buyers of certificated/approved service providers rely.

Only those organisations inspected by UKAS and found compliant with the relevant national and international standards against which other businesses are certificated are awarded ‘accreditation’. In short, UKAS ‘checks the checkers’.The international standards for accredited certification include ISO/IEC 17021-1: 2015 (management systems certification) and ISO/IEC 17065: 2012 (product conformity certification).

Acting as a proxy for buyers and operators in residential, commercial and public sectors, certification bodies provide confidence in how risk to people and property is managed in practice. There is a pressing need for credible ways in which suppliers can demonstrate their competence in delivering fit for purpose products and services. In recent years there has been a noticeable and growing interest in, and demand for approval, as buyers seek providers they can trust in delivering effective fire safety and security solutions.

UKAS accredited certification bodies help to protect the public interest through rigorous ongoing audit programmes aimed at organisations’ management systems and/or products and services, and checking conformity with relevant standards. The certification/approval issued by these bodies signals that independent verification has been successful and evidences that a company is competent in working to the standards as displayed on their certificate of approval.

Hence, a certificate of approval issued by a UKAS accredited organisation, such as a certification body, is compelling evidence of competence.

BAFE schemes

Meanwhile, BAFE (British Approvals for Fire Equipment), an independent registration body in fire safety, has a well developed suite of specific fire safety codes of practice or schemes. It has also appointed a number of UKAS accredited certification bodies to provide conformity assessment against those schemes. Fire safety providers which demonstrate their competence to their chosen certification body are issued their passport to becoming BAFE registered. Significantly, the certification is time limited and requires
periodic re-certification to remain valid.

Examples of recently introduced BAFE schemes include SP207 for the design, installation, commissioning and maintenance of evacuation alert systems (October 2020), SP206 for kitchen fire protection systems (2018) and SP205 for life safety fire risk assessment (2012).

Legislative demands

With increasing pressures on buyers to source trusted providers, the need for certification continues to move up the agenda. The significant sector changes seen following the 2017 Grenfell Tower tragedy are having a widening ripple effect. In May 2018, the Hackitt Report concluded that there should be a whole-building approach to fire safety, requiring systemic change from design through build and on to occupation stages – that is across its entire life cycle; and interest in certification is growing.

Currently in its final stage of passage through parliament, the Fire Safety Bill will introduce changes to the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (applicable in England and Wales), extending the areas of multi occupied residential buildings for which the responsible person will be required to manage and reduce fire risk.

Government consultation focused on wider strengthening of the Fire Safety Order and improving compliance, and further changes to fire safety law in this area, are now expected to follow. The separate Building Safety Bill, published last year in response to the Hackitt Report, also has implications for ‘duty holders’, given the light shone by Dame Judith Hackitt on crucial problems, including a lack of understanding of the roles and responsibilities of those involved in a building through the various stages of its life cycle. A fundamental shortfall in the competency of individuals – during both the design and construction phases of a building, and then during the occupation and maintenance phases – was underlined and the report concluded, amongst other things, that there is a need to better inform residents about and engage them in the building safety of their homes.

The concept of a duty holder with responsibilities and accountabilities under law for building safety was recommended, along with a requirement for broader risk management, including the structural safety of the whole building. A new duty holder regime would be implemented in every building, with the aim of ensuring that the person or entity that creates a building safety risk
is responsible for managing that risk.

Many people hold the view that third party certification should be adopted more widely to help govern the sector, since independent audit of competence and management control across a range of fire safety measures can demonstrably improve outcomes and help raise standards on which the public can rely.

Third party certification in the fire safety sector is not new, but to date its adoption by the professional industry has been largely voluntary. Leveraging it to further raise standards and safety is currently restricted to those who believe in its merits. Organisations holding third party certification demonstrate their predisposition to continuous improvement and its benefits, in terms of organisational efficiency and the quality of fire safety systems and services delivered.

Insurance implications

Third party certification is also a tool for duty holders/responsible persons to discharge their increasing responsibilities within this tightening fire safety legislative environment. It represents a welcome bulwark for duty holders, who will need to demonstrate legislative compliance and likely insurance stipulations, and is also significant in the potential ramifications for end users and others.

As a result, third party certification or approval awarded by accredited certification bodies provides end users, site managers, duty holders and others with reassurance. Those charged with responsibility for the fire safety protection of both people and buildings can be confident that specific and focused certification signifies providers capable of delivering services which conform to recognised standards.

Such is the strength of this argument that the Fire Protection Association has already called for the acknowledged value of third party certificated products to be mandated and to apply to installers and risk assessors.

It has also been argued that the significantly changing societal conditions experienced over the past 12 months, during the COVID-19 pandemic, have further underlined the importance of accredited third party certification services. Resulting changes in use of space and occupancy are bringing with them fresh challenges to risk assessment and fire safety. As these are reflected in revisions to codes of practice and schemes so approved organisations, by virtue of their ongoing approval, will signify that they are keeping up with the times.

Standards and audit

One key method of optimising risk mitigation in circumstances such as these lies in making use of the latest standards and codes of practice which have been developed in response to evolving threats and new technologies. The accredited approval process of certification bodies, including NSI, involves ongoing audit programmes tailored to each approved company. Annual audits ensure continuing compliance with relevant standards, codes of practice as they evolve, and applicable legislation.

Complementary use by service providers of ISO 9001 approval for quality management systems assists in this objective through its inclusion of a strong customer focus, the engagement of top management and continual improvement.

Benefits boost

Accredited third party certification plays proxy for discerning buyers of security systems and fire safety services, signalling confidence in approved companies’ capabilities and integrity, ensuring relevant service criteria will be met, as is often required by insurance policies.

Underpinning this, standards and codes of practice offer a valuable safety net for buyers, providing them with the reassurance of knowing that competencies are kept up to date and in line with revised standards and codes as a matter of course – in a sense, futureproofing their tools.

Accredited certification bodies play a vital role adding value through their oversight of supply chains. ‘Certificated’ or ‘approved’ installers and service providers of fire safety systems are in turn vital links, their expertise at the point of delivery ensuring that solutions are fit for purpose and keep people safe.