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The price of failure

The recent case of Southwark Council being taken to court on 22 charges relating to fire safety in Lakanal House should concentrate the mind of anyone who is either responsible for fire safety, or who installs fire protection in buildings. As many will be aware, six people died at Lakanal House in 2009 due to the failure of a number of measures and systems. Amongst the charges laid at Southwark’s door are:

  • Allegations that there was no fire risk assessment under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005
  • Claims that suspended ceilings were in a poor state of repair and not constructed in a way or made of materials that would stop a fire from spreading
  • Allegations that parts of the construction of the building failed to adequately provide barriers to smoke and fire, and that sealing to fire escape doors and flat doors was inadequate.

The Association for Specialist Fire Protection (ASFP) is also aware that in the various refurbishments that were carried out over the years, vital fire protection to stairs within flats was not reinstated properly to separate them from corridors underneath and running perpendicular to them, allowing fire spread between escape routes and individual flats. New facades to the outside of individual flats were provided with materials which were more flammable than those they replaced. In many ways from a passive fire protection perspective, the fire safety of the building simply deteriorated over years due to poor maintenance and unrestricted alterations.

There is unfortunately, a culture in the construction industry of ‘cheapest is best’. And, in the case of fire protection, because most believe their building will never experience a fire and where poor workmanship is often not picked up during construction/refurbishment, nobody discovers the failings until it is too late. Six people paid the price of this culture.

So, let’s be clear, if you are responsible for the fire safety in a building, it is up to you to ensure that all the relevant fire protection is adequate. Further, if you appoint an installation contractor to work on a fire protection system, it is also your responsibility to ensure that they can prove their competency for the work they are doing. And, in case there are any contractors out there who think they can get away with only ‘doing what I was told to do’, you too have a legal obligation to ensure that you are competent and that the materials you install are adequate. Under 5.3 and 5.4 of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 you are deemed to have the same responsibility as the Responsible Person in this respect.

The ASFP is dedicated to the protection of life, property and the environment through education and training of all those involved in the design, development, specification, installation and maintenance of ‘built in’ fire protection. It also sets the highest standards in respect of the installation of passive fire protection. For the last ten years, it has been a requirement of membership for all installing contractor members of the ASFP that they must hold third party certification from a UKAS accredited third party certification body. Such bodies are independent from both the ASFP and the contractor and ensure competence by a mixture of checking records of materials purchased, evaluating the competence of individual installers, ensuring that all projects have completion certificates and – most importantly – inspection of works both on-going and completed. If you choose an ASFP installer contractor you have the best chance of ensuring work will be completed to the required standard.

To investigate how to ensure that fire protection is considered throughout the construction cycle, the ASFP brought together a panel of 11 stakeholders in a ‘question time’ and a ‘round table’ event in 2016. They included: an architect/designer; a criminal regulatory lawyer; a fire engineer; a Tier One contractor; a passive fire protection manufacturer; a passive fire protection installer; passive fire protection trade bodies; the fire service; building control; an insurer; and a building owner.

All identified a number of issues, which partially explain the situation we have today. Whilst it is easy to simply bash contractors, there are other factors and pressures including: fragmentation within the construction design and build process, caused for example by multiple sub-contracting; and a lack of adequate training for those specifying fire protection. Quite often, compartmentation lines are drawn in such a way that it is physically impossible to install the appropriate fire-stopping measures.

The panel agreed as a priority that it is crucial to improve interaction between all construction industry disciplines and, to this end, the ASFP is working with the panel to:

  • Develop of a ‘Plan of Work’ process for fire, to ensure that there is a detailed specification for fire protection at the design stage and a schedule for fire throughout the construction process
  • Include a sign-off process for all stakeholders at each stage of construction and hand-over
  •  Draft a supporting guidance document which will provide consistent and simple information to highlight what needs to be done at each stage of the process and by whom
  • Achieve buy-in from all professional bodies involved in the construction process

The supporting guidance will be launched this summer and will be promoted at a number of ASFP regional seminars scheduled throughout the year.

For more information, go to www.asfp.org.uk

Niall Rowan is Technical Officer at the Association for Specialist Fire Protection

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