The Fire Sector Federation (FSF) has published a white paper calling for a wider discussion to create a national fire-safety strategy that goes beyond current legislative proposals.
The ‘Developing a National Strategy for Fire Safety’ document sets out a possible pathway for the fire sector and government to work together to create a society safer from fire.
The proposals were developed by a new FSF Fire Safety Strategy Board, with leadership expertise drawn from across a diverse range of sectors including fire safety, fire and rescue, construction, insurance and building control.
The Federation believes that the UK needs to think afresh about fire safety and in doing so make better use of the collective knowledge, expertise and understanding that exists to create a fire-safe society.
The UK lacks a holistic fire-safety strategy. The aim is often to reconcile and compromise rather than take forceful action to achieve a clear objective. A strategy brings coherence, guiding policy following diagnosis of the weaknesses and barriers that prevent success.
Fire has historically been a low priority in Britain. Despite stages of improvement, usually following tragic fires, and the investment in step changes of approach over the years, progress remains evolutionary rather than proactive and planned. The current pathway just isn’t good enough and is best described as one of stuttering indifference.
There are many reasons for this situation, not least complacency. Two decades of low fire deaths and constant juggling of priorities for public expenditure led policy makers to believe in the false assumption that they really had fire under control. One clear example and consequence was the stagnation of Building Regulations for fire at a time when the construction sector juggernaut was expanding in economic importance, following greater and new investments in practices and solutions.
These investments and changes in construction techniques developed from reasons like cost, requirements for better insulation, the need to build more homes faster etc. and resulted in different materials, often with more combustible content, being introduced alongside industrialised offsite manufacture of building elements. The building-sector workforce also evolved, altering its overall understanding of fire and on-site supervision with the focus shifting towards integrated supply trains and itemised cost management.
Significant change like this has ultimately led to fire being a lowered priority and having to compete against numerous policy areas all demanding policy attention. The Federation considers this lowering of placement in the policy prioritisation framework a serious miscalculation, one that urgently needs reassessment and readjustment because prioritisation affects all types of investments and raises the risk of avoiding further catastrophic failure. Fire safety in the UK must not continue to be reactive to tragedy.
Learning from the past is a key component to advancement. Right now, the country is embarking upon a cultural and legislative regime shift in building safety, attempting to define and rigorously enforce compliance with fire safety at the design and construction stages of buildings. However, we somehow fail to see that this admittedly important process is a relatively small part of what is an infinitely far more complex and larger scale problem, one that goes way beyond construction.
Life safety impacts so many other spheres of occupation and endeavour that we cannot keep looking at isolated problem parts of a holistic issue, we need to look at fire in the round, to upscale the issue and find more effective ways of bringing into play our collective resources. This means pulling the many policy areas currently operating in silos together, building interconnections so they work effectively with each other to benefit public safety.
Redressing this policy indifference should ensure that the subject of fire is seen as invested in the widest public and stakeholder communities and not the prerogative of one government department, the Home Office, or even in one service, the fire and rescue service. Operating as we do now, this demonstrates limited understanding and constrains scope leading to overly restricted thinking at a time when really what’s needed is a clear ‘Four Nations Inter-Departmental’ fire-safety strategy.
The absurdity of the omission of an integrated UK Fire Strategy is clear in the built environment. Here we see two separate policy areas, construction and occupation, managed within two separate government departments, when it is self-evident they must be coordinated if success is to be achieved.
Likewise, a strategic oversight is required to ensure every priority does not ignore how it may impact on fire. The current example of the fire-safety implications of the ‘Green Agenda’ driving zero-carbon targets to meet climate challenges is a case in point. Have the implications for fire been addressed, examined and understood? Or are we again expecting risk to be absorbed, mitigated and controlled following experience?
Having a coherent strategy that aligns with national and devolved government, coordinates policy and action, departments and stakeholders, research and observations, technologies and materials is fundamental if we wish to be ‘a first nation’ in controlling fire. Renewing and realigning our perspective on fire is critical to that ambition.
Using what expertise exists is also crucial to translating this complex area of overwhelming detail into a clear and understandable plan. Fire has a fragmented technical sector with many users operating in different disciplines across multiple fields.
The Grenfell Tower Inquiry has provided a powerful insight into this sector through the optic of a single event, it has created a clearer view of the availability of the wide range of expertise capable of supporting policy in the fire environment. It has also illustrated, as the example of the available expertise and knowledge of material behaviour under test conditions shows, how despite having pertinent information around fire-test performance, this might fail to be communicated, translated and escalated to influence important action because of commercial confidentiality.
Conversely, a progressive strategy to reduce the size of central government, restating its central role as final arbiter rather than leader and promoter of action, has had impact. Government expertise has been deliberately reduced, transferring responsibility closer to the actions of implementation and decision making, without prior assessment that appropriate and suitable capability and capacity exists. This questions whether those parliamentarians engaged on public safety through scrutiny and legislative oversight are in turn well advised.
It is incumbent upon everyone in the built environment to avoid further complacency and address problems we know continue to exist and may evolve in future. Industry is well placed to understand these problems and, just as importantly, some of their solutions.
Engaging positively and supportively with government, The Federation believes a National Fire Strategy is the most effective way to achieve the shared aim of a fire-safe society. The desire is to have a road map to deliver an effective and resilient fire-safety agenda aligned within a secure and sustainable environment, and that requires collective actions in both industry and government. As an industry, the fire sector can use its unrivalled knowledge and experience to define the route to better fire safety.
The Federation has identified three areas for immediate priority: raising competency; mitigating fire risk in modular and other buildings using mass timber; together with partnering the construction sector to raise awareness of fire risk from innovative new products and methodologies. Work has already begun to establish industry working groups in these areas and develop proposals for government.
A new strategy will address the current gaps in fire safety and in doing so will enable the industry to help government set appropriate policy priorities for success.
The White Paper is available to download at: https://www.firesectorfederation.co.uk/federation-launches-national-blueprint-for-fire-safety/
For more information, go to www.firesectorfederation.co.uk