On Tuesday, 5 May a fire engulfed the 49-storey Abbco Tower, a residential skyscraper in the city of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. While the cause of the blaze and the mechanism of fire spread has not yet been announced, it is clear that the fire spread externally and that the cladding is likely to be implicated.
This latest high rise fire in the Middle East highlights that although the world is focused on the Coronavirus pandemic, the global lockdown has not stopped fires from occurring. And the risk to life safety is increased as many high rise buildings are fully occupied all of the time due to lockdown. While thankfully no lives were lost in the blaze, it is clear that even in these difficult times issues and concerns related to fire safety must not be forgotten.
With many countries across the globe slowly coming out of lockdown, the construction and infrastructure sector has been highlighted by many governments as being key players in leading recovery. But what is the role of the fire safety sector?
Certainly in the UK, there has been little clarity from Government on what aspects of fire protection work are essential. In a letter to stakeholders, Neil O’Connor CBE, Director, Building Safety Programme at the Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) highlighted work on the remediation of high-rise buildings with unsafe cladding, particularly those with unsafe Aluminium Composite Material (ACM) cladding, as critical to public safety declaring that such work should continue throughout the lockdown.
A further pledge from the Housing Secretary, mayors and local leaders was released on 16 April and updated in May. This aimed to ensure vital building safety improvements continue during the coronavirus pandemic, stating:
“Making buildings safe, including remediating high-rise buildings with unsafe cladding, is a priority for all of us.
“We are clear that building safety work should continue where it is safe to do so, in accordance with public health guidance and procedures put in place by the construction industry to protect the workforce and minimise the risk of spreading infection.”
The Government stated that the pledge aimed to ensure that the safety of those living in high-rise buildings with unsafe cladding or insufficient fire safety measures would continue to be prioritised despite the pandemic. The National Fire Chief’s Council (NFCC) also produced revised guidance on waking watches within the context of COVID-19 and the Government declared that staff undertaking waking watch or other critical fire safety roles should be considered critical workers. However, these ‘other critical fire safety roles’ have not been defined.
While the focus on remediation work is welcome, the vital role of active and passive fire protection systems within both new and existing buildings should not be forgotten. Although unsafe cladding had been clearly defined as critical to public safety, the Government has not offered any definition of which other forms of building safety work should be classified as critical. This leaves installers of essential passive and active fire protection systems unsure of whether they have a mandate to work on projects other than hospital or care sites on the frontline of the pandemic response.
The main construction Industry bodies in the UK are keen to promote the message that construction is open for business and that, provided work can be carried out following the Construction Leadership Council’s Safe Operating Procedures, sites should continue to operate. As a result of this and the strong desire to restart the economy, 75% of non-housing construction sites are open in the UK, albeit working at reduced efficiency due to the need to practice social distancing. However, only about 25% of house building sites are open.
Concerns remain related to: guidance on and the supply of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE); contractual issues concerning delayed projects and obtaining payment; and difficulties in the supply chain in some areas caused by manufacturing furloughing contracting and shutting down soon after lockdown restrictions were introduced.
The UK’s Construction Industry Council (CIC) CEO Graham Watts is reported to have stated that cladding remediation work will be an important pipeline of business for firms, as they look to bounce back from the covid-19 pandemic. With this in mind, perhaps the UK and other governments around the globe should provide further recognition to the fire safety sector of its essential role in maintaining public safety, as well as its importance in helping to revive weakened economies.
As the UK Government unveiled its plans for a new Building Safety Bill, which places greater emphasis on the testing and regulation of construction products and an increasing focus on ensuring competence in the construction chain, there were still no specific requirements announced for qualifications or third party certification of those involved in the installation of essential fire protection systems.
While the ASFP welcomes the Government’s commitment to change and its focus on ensuring checks at key gateways throughout the construction process, as well as improving product testing and certification, we believe that a greater emphasis on the competency of installers is vital if the quality and safety of the built environment is to be significantly improved.
A great deal of work to develop competency frameworks has been undertaken by the Competency Steering Group (CSG), set up by the Industry Response Group (Construction Products Association, Build UK and Construction Industry Council) in the wake of the Grenfell tragedy. This work is now expected to be further developed by Government.
While the introduction of a range of new national regulators and committees to provide oversight and control of the fire safety regime in England and Wales and to improve oversight of product and third party certification standards is welcomed. The ASFP will continue to campaign for formal competency requirements for fire professionals including installers of active and passive fire protection systems and mandatory third party certification of products and installers.
For more information, go to www.asfp.org.uk