Being part of and working within the UK fire safety sector is a privilege. It is certainly enjoyable. Meetings and interchanges are measured and polite. Rarely are voices raised; we wait for others to have their say, and listen respectfully; hardly is a strident note struck. And if complete consensus cannot be found then we agree to different perspectives and move on. Although opinions are aired, with credit we seek to base arguments on experience and sound technical principles.
For buildings we speak implicitly of balanced and integrated fire protection. “Integrated” means that fire safety naturally requires different approaches working together. That isn’t just active and passive systems – an unfortunate polarisation forced more by industry structure than sound fire safety principles – but also, of course, emergency response and community fire safety, increasingly with facilities and building management. Now we need to welcome risk assessors to fire safety. “Balanced” means that there should always be a combination of measures, but that the relative weight of one compared to another in the mix will vary according to the situation. That is determined by the risk profile of the building – its function, age, and complexity or simplicity of design – the fire safety objectives and the risk profile of those who live and work in the building or who just pass through.
The sector is a united one. Above all we see ourselves as advocates for a worthy cause.
Yet one cannot avoid the feeling that sometimes we tend to be just too much of a debating society. We find ourselves too often, or so it seems, speaking just within our own circle. Is that too harsh a judgment? But, let’s ask: How many out there in other sectors are actually listening, absorbing the messages and reacting?
The key audiences are those in other sectors who, through their actions (or inactions), attitudes and decisions fundamentally affect fire safety in practice in constructions. That includes those in building engineering and design; also in specification, contracting, product supply and installation; and those who develop new building technologies, methods and materials with a blind spot concerning the potential impact of higher fire loads and greater sensitivities to fire spread and growth. Those who supervise, check and carry out refurbishments, re-modelling work and repairs should be included as well. Amongst all the day-to-day concerns and various commercial pressures, does fire safety really manage to force itself on to those agendas? Is the fire safety message getting across strongly enough?
Where is the evidence for the concerns? Is there good cause to wonder if our building stock is not entirely as fit for purpose as it should be regarding fire safety?
Every now and again we sadly have tragic and catastrophic fires that serve for a time to jolt the wider community and authorities out of their complacency. If we take the evidence from those events as filtered through into the public arena, then there is plenty to think about. It seems that questions concerning the risks of fire and its spread are not being asked at critical stages when work is being done. Not to know is excusable since fire safety is a technical area, requiring special knowledge, particularly for building elements and products; and no one can have a monopoly on all the knowledge. But not to recognise knowledge gaps, and not to think to ask the key fire safety question when lives may be at stake, is unforgiveable.
All would be fine if we could confidently relegate such concerns to the past. But the indication is most likely that things have not really changed. The evidence is largely circumstantial, personal experiences from particular instances (but just as valid nevertheless). For example, members of the glazing industry have consistently expressed concerns to the Glass and Glazing Federation (GGF) that they are coming up against too many cases where specifications coming down the design, specification and supply chain are too suspect against the best practice principles on glass behaviour in fire and fire-resistant glazed systems that the Federation has laboured so hard, for so long, to drum into the industry.
Maybe such reports are untypical. But when raised at fire sector gatherings I note nods of acknowledgement, smiles of encouragement, words of support; but no protesting voices. Such concerns are apparently not unknown to others in fire safety.
So, what should the fire safety sector do?
We have to take the arguments outside our sector. We need to go over the barricades to carry the fight (metaphorically) much more assertively to other sectors – especially construction, design, contracting, building ownership and management. We have to bang the competency drum much more loudly. The fire safety sector has to become more of an impassioned campaigning and marketing organisation in the cause of fire safety. But I suspect we aren’t really entirely comfortable in that more forceful role. We are just too polite. And so fire safety will still struggle to force itself on to the building agenda; the fire safety sector will continue to air its frustrations mainly in its own forums; and building fire safety will stay more or less where it is. That is unless we actually do change.