I am a confirmed believer that just about everything in life comes down to making choices. Even when we think we have no other options, something else is invariably available, even though it may be unpalatable. And decisions regarding issues surrounding fire protection are no exception.
Choices are being made every day: which detection system to select; what training do staff need; who is responsible for getting it right; should I find out more; is cost the main decision driver? If the list seems endless, it is because it is.
In the four-and-a-half years that I have been editing International Fire Protection I have come to realise that fire safety comes down to making the right choices. So in this edition, which is my last as Group Editor of MDM’s titles, I would like to argue my case.
If you doubt its validity, just consider any of the fires in which you have been involved in your working life. I contend that in every case the cause of the fire, its growth, impact on the building, or the consequences for the people caught up in the blaze are a direct result of one or more choices made somewhere by somebody. It might have related to ineffective passive protection measures, opting for a traditional sounder alarm system rather that a voice alarm, not revisiting a risk assessment when the building use changed, not reviewing the building’s acoustic performance when wall or floor coverings were altered, or paying insufficient attention to escape routes.
[su_quote]I have never forgotten what a senior police officer once told me: ‘There is no such thing as an accident; somebody made the wrong decision, they decided not to take sufficient care. It did not just happen’.[/su_quote]
Of course, and very sadly, some highly regrettable choices are down to what can only be described as greed or a criminal disregard for human safety. All too often we read about overcrowded nightclubs, pyrotechnic displays inside buildings and locked or inaccessible escape routes. But these aside, how do the “innocent” bad choices in our industry come about? There are any number of possible reasons: inexperience; financial pressures; competition; shortage of time; sheer habit; lack of knowledge and even complacency.
Perhaps one way of improving fire protection choice making is closer engagement between all of the parties involved – the building owner, occupier, architect, builder, fire engineer, interior fitting-out company, detection and alarm system manufacturer, installation designer, installation contractor and system maintainer – whereby each has the opportunity to ask the others the searching “what if” questions. We have gone some way towards this with the handing over of system and maintenance documentation, but is that enough? After all, it is all too easy to treat that as a responsibility passing exercise.
I am reminded of an experience I had many years ago while living and working in Japan. It has nothing to do with fire safety but, I think, illustrates my point. I was involved in the launch of a new product and, at a meeting with well over a dozen employees of the Japanese partner company, we discussed the details of the product about to be launched. Not all of those present spoke by any means so, after the meeting, I asked my Japanese colleague who these people were and why they were at the meeting. I particularly asked about one rather timid looking guy who sat quietly and deferentially throughout the meeting. His reply has a message for us all; he told me that that man ran the mail room. To my inevitable next question, why was he at the meeting, he told me that the company always involved everyone that had a role to play in a venture’s success. After all, he pointed out, the launch might fail if the product could not cost effectively be packaged and mailed, and who best to know than the man doing the work.
Surely it is the same with a fire safety solution? Perhaps, for example, the building occupier ought to have the opportunity to question the fire engineer’s evacuation strategy; and perhaps the maintenance contractor should be able to quiz the occupier about post-occupancy access? Perhaps better choices would be arrived at; and perhaps we would get safer buildings.
Finally, I would like to thank all of the contributors I have had the pleasure of working with, and I hope we will meet again, as I am planning to stay closely involved in this fascinating and vitally important industry.