I was recently invited to be a guest speaker at an industry conference, and as part of the process I was asked to write a short biography to accompany the programme. From this I learnt a valuable lesson – read your biography out loud before sending it! Why? Because on the day of the conference, the Chairman introduced me by saying, ‘Wilf has over forty years of experience within the fire protection industry’!
On hearing these words my first thoughts were, how is this possible? Where has the time gone? I still feel like I’m in my thirties, well forties, ok fifties!
For those considerably younger than I, four decades must seem like an eternity, but those of a similar age will be only too well aware of just how quickly the decades roll by.
In reality, a great deal has changed within the last forty years. The world wide web; mobile communication and all of the benefits that computerisation and social media now offer us, were the stuff of science fiction back in the 1970s when I started my working life.
From a fire industry perspective, technology has revolutionised the way we can design buildings. It offers a wealth of opportunities, with the use of innovative new materials and fire engineered solutions, that prescriptive design from back in the day could never emulate.
My own field of expertise, passive fire protection has, it might be argued, witnessed little real change over the last forty years. Many of the passive fire protection solutions seen today protecting our new and innovative iconic buildings, are little more than an improved variation of the products and systems marketed some forty years ago. Evolution rather than revolution you might say.
The Association for Specialist Fire Protection (ASFP) was also formed just over forty years ago for no other reason than to improve overall standards in passive fire protection and develop good practice for all those involved in the design, build, inspection and management of the built environment. For a good many of the last four decades this has been an uphill struggle, with passive fire protection often disregarded, and seen as the fire protection element that is generally ‘out of sight’ and ‘out of mind’.
Events over the last two or three years have however seen a sharp change in this mind-set. Passive fire protection has come to the forefront of consideration, particularly brought to light by the legacy issues identified in a number of high profile PFI building investigations, and major fires where ineffective installation of the required protection measures have proved that they have not been fit for purpose.
Often this has not been the fault of the originally installed fire protective measure, but a culmination of issues brought about by one, or a number, of follow on trades over the years, who with little or no knowledge of fire compartmentation, have opened up the compartment to pass through their own services, leaving the damaged fire barrier vulnerable to smoke and fire penetration. Apathy, ignorance and denial has been the order of the day, but there is now something of a revolution underway, the likes of which has not been seen over most of the last forty years.
To significantly improve the appropriate specification and installation of passive fire protection, many organisations – be they Tier One contractors, institutional bodies or those who manage major building portfolios – are now insisting on a minimum level of product and installer competency, demonstrated through appropriate third party certification. Furthermore, others are now ensuring that all follow on trades can demonstrate that they are not just competent in their own field of expertise, but can also demonstrate the appropriate skill-sets necessary to reinstate the fire protective compartments they breach.
If there is a revolution in the passive fire protection sector, it is one of a thirst for knowledge and a recognition that competency of installation is essential. The ASFP is now at the forefront of this revolution, offering a wealth of guidance, codes of practice and best practice guides through its website www.asfp.org.uk, along with a range of videos and developing training initiatives, to assist and support all those who need to specify, install, inspect or manage passive fire protection systems.
It might have taken the best part of forty years to get to this point but it is worth remembering that whilst new technologies may come and go, we should take note of the American naturalist, poet and philosopher, Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) who said ‘things do not change, we do’!
For more information go to www.asfp.org.uk