How do we harness the power of resident and consumer action when considering fire safety? As members of the fire-safety/engineering community we can often regard fire-safety issues through the lens of legislation, fire science or risk management.
The outcome of these deliberations is standards, guidance and technical specifications. Vital for fire-safety professionals but inaccessible and bewildering for consumers and residents. Take the issue of a definition of ‘limited combustibility’, a phrase which in hindsight was never going to be understood by lay people.
At a recent meeting discussing a tenant engagement strategy, a fire-safety colleague made the comment ‘don’t tell them about the fire strategy, they’ll never understand it’. This is indicative of a culture within the fire-safety community where we treat consumers and residents as ‘end users’ incapable of grasping the myriad of contributing fire-safety factors.
As we stand on the brink of the biggest update in fire-safety legislation in the UK for a generation, I believe it is right to ask: how are we engaging with consumers of fire safety?
There are still established members of the fire-safety community who will state that the significant fires like Grenfell, Lakanal, The Cube are statistical anomalies, which do not represent the overall fire risk within the UK. This view is very attractive to anyone who has limited resources to change existing building stock or make fire-safety upgrades like sprinklers. Traditionally we calculate risk based on consequence (harm) v probability (likelihood) and for the purposes of fire safety we draw heavily on the UK National Fire Statistics.
Is this the whole story? How do you assess the risk of getting bitten by a shark? Number of shark bites? Number of people in the water? Number of sharks in the sea?
In the world of health and safety, there is a concept called ‘Birds Triangle’ which proposes a numerical link between minor incidents and near misses to major and catastrophic events, i.e., if you have 100 minor fires, you will have 1 major fire. This would inevitably mean that even in a declining rate of fires, a major fire may still occur. In relation to High Rise Residential Buildings this becomes very material because we have changed the existing building stock (overclad in insulation), changed building techniques (modern methods of construction), deregulated (bonfire of red tape). The calculation has changed, and large catastrophic fires may well be more likely. We must consider risk exposure, not just risk occurrence.
Significant progress has been made with the FireMark Project, since it was last reported in this publication back in March 2020. The intention of the project is making the fire-safety assessment of a building very accessible to consumers and residents by means of a simple graphical scoring system: 1 triangle = bad; 5 triangles = good, like star rating systems for hotels.
The project has three contributing teams. The guidance team is writing the guidance document that will accompany the FireMark scheme with the first draft being available by the end of June 2021. The digital team is developing a process to be connected to a QR code that will be on the FireMark display poster. The launch of the Fire Safety Data standard BS 8644 part 1 later in 2021 will provide a useful framework. Lastly, the early adopter team has selected a range of trial buildings for the research phase of the FireMark process and it is hoped that FireMarks will be in selected buildings by mid August 2021.
The FireMark project has been adopted by Fire Safe Europe as a pilot scheme to provide valuable feedback and consumer reaction. Other early adopters have come forward from Canada and Australia, with more to follow hopefully.
Fire Safe Europe will be holding a major digital fire-safety conference in October 2021 and it is hoped that results from the early adopters will be ready for circulation and scrutiny. As we embrace new technologies – BIM, Green walls and roofs, Tall Timber etc. – we must not forget the need to engage with the fire-safety consumer and building residents. Members of the fire-safety community who cocoon themselves in tech talk and jargon babble will not advance the cause of fire safety, nor will those who clutch fire statistics for reassurance. Let’s bring residents and occupiers into the discussion and make them a much bigger part of the solution.