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After Grenfell, three issues to consider

Following the Grenfell tower fire in June, the British government set up an independent review into Building Regulations and Fire Safety led by Dame Judith Hackitt. An interim report is expected in late 2017 with a full report in spring 2018. The review is concentrating on a number of themes which impact on fire safety; many have been ‘grievances’ for those in the fire sector for a number of years before the Grenfell fire. I would like to pick on some that formed part of our submission to the independent review that I think are crucial to both the Grenfell fire and fire safety in general.

Legal requirements

The building regulations in UK are given form is a series of functional statements used to keep the building safe. An example relating to structural fire protection states: “The building shall be designed and constructed so that in the event of fire, its stability will be maintained for a reasonable period”. How a designer satisfies these simple statements is explained in Approved Document B the guidance published by government for this purpose.

Unfortunately Approved Document B is not clear in many places and the guidance for cladding and insulation gives room for different interpretations to be made. Similarly, it has failed to keep up with other changes in building construction. The last revision was in 2005 and the fire sector, including the ASFP, has been campaigning for a review for many years.

What is especially frustrating is that after the Lakanal House fire in 2009 which killed six people, the coroner recommended that Approved Document B be revised to make it clearer and to revise the guidance on cladding. The coroner also recommended considering retro fitting sprinklers. If the review had been undertaken as requested by the coroner in 2013 it is likely that the refurbishment of Grenfell tower – completed in 2016 – might have been undertaken to a very different set of rules with a very different outcome. A review is long overdue.

Do we need more prescription?

With regard to performance based legislation, as described above, there are benefits in encouraging innovative solutions via fire safety engineering, or using a fire engineering approach to solve some issues in the building, but it must be undertaken properly by suitably qualified individuals and the process must be subject to adequate scrutiny and control. We cannot have the situation we have in Grenfell tower whereby the government (Department of Communities and Local Government) insists that cladding and insulation must be of limited combustibility (Euroclass A2), and then this can be undermined by ‘desk top’ studies which allow the use of both insulation and cladding of Class 0 (Euroclass B) performance. One publicly available third party document from a building control organisation stating exactly this was removed from its website the morning after the fire.

So it’s no surprise that when BRE tested 275 items of cladding, that 267 failed… There is a complete disconnect between what was stated (however unclearly) in the guidance and what the industry was supplying and installing on buildings.

This lowering of the ‘requirements’ may well have been the biggest single factor in the Grenfell fire and the ASFP is aware of other situations where the ‘requirements’ of AD-B are watered down for cost reasons. We are very concerned at the widespread removal or downgrading of fire protection (both passive & active) from buildings when sometimes the rational for doing so is not sound or is solely financial. Perhaps for high rise, or high risk – not always the same thing – we need a bit more prescription.

Competency of key players

Question: What have a fire consultant; an installer of fire protection and a fire risk assessor have in common?

Answer: None of them are required to be trained, have their competency evaluated, be included on any register, or be licensed to practice in any way.

For such individuals who are responsible for the design, installation and assessment of life safety systems, this is a serious omission and is one that the ASFP and others have raised many times before. In other professions, doctors, lawyers and others have to spend years of study and exams to achieve a qualification to be able to practice. Many have to be on registers such as that run by the General Medical Council. At the lower end of the scale, plumbers, electricians and gas fitters are required to pass exams and have their competency evaluated.

Why is there no such requirement for fire protection in the UK? A system of training, competency evaluation and qualification of all the major players is long overdue. As a start, the ASFP is working with the Institute of Fire Engineers to provide competency evaluation for all stakeholders to obtain a qualification in passive fire protection.

There will undoubtedly be many more issues that come to the fore as a result of the Hackitt review and the public inquiry which will report some time later. However, tackling those discussed above will go a long way to redressing the current highly unsatisfactory situation.

For more information, go to www.asfp.org.uk

Niall Rowan is Technical Officer at the Association for Specialist Fire Protection

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