Incompetence around buildings’ fire safety is putting lives at risk

Fire-safety regulation is a hot topic for everyone in construction, particularly the residential sector, where the Fire Safety Act (FSA) and Building Safety Act (BSA) are rightly tightening up protocol. Being refined on a regular basis, the FSA continues to be updated, with recent requirements mandating that external walls of a building be part of any fire assessment. There’s no doubt that the issue is being taken seriously.

“Inconsistency in the quality of work remains an ongoing challenge and needs to be stamped out if the sector is to achieve holistic fire safety”

Going further, the Health and Safety Executive has also published an updated version of HSG168, its dedicated publication on fire safety in construction, with new guidance focusing on eliminating risk in the pre-construction and design phase.

Ultimately, the guidance encourages better practice within a more ruthless framework; those found out of step or not compliant with the new landscape risk criminal prosecution and being frozen out of the market altogether. It’s a positive step towards a better, more responsible sector.

However, inconsistency in the quality of work remains an ongoing challenge and needs to be stamped out if the sector is to achieve holistic fire safety across the full building lifecycle. Asset handover seems to be an area where many issues still arise, particularly around the quality and competence of fire inspections.

It’s easier said than done. A lack of standardisation around this crucial task is still putting occupants’ lives at risk. It’s also putting all those involved in the delivery, ownership and management of residential assets at unnecessary legal, financial and reputational risk.

It doesn’t have to be this way, and I feel that a far more concerted effort could be made to rectify this weak link in an otherwise (relatively) robust chain. Ultimately, without a single, standardised and compulsory procedure in place for safety inspections, we risk derailing the progress made within the FSA and BSA.

So, the question now must be how to resolve this situation.

Missing a trick

Unfortunately, fire-safety inspections are still prone to errors and oversight. For example, recent data from the Fire Door Inspection Scheme highlighted that a staggering three in four fire doors failed to meet the required standards, putting lives at risk.

There are also financial repercussions to consider if mistakes are made: it can result in costly reworks. Not only does this send project costs spiralling, but it also delays completion dates. With tight profit margins to consider and the ever-rising cost of energy and materials, developers should think long and hard about their approach to fire-safety inspections and the importance of getting it right the first time.

With last year’s news that the number of fire assessors capable of carrying out EWS1 inspections was still well below the adequate level, it’s creating added pressures for developers looking to meet asset owners’ hard deadlines. In 2020, there were fewer than 300 qualified chartered fire engineers who could carry out an EWS1 survey, with only 50 new external-wall fire-safety inspectors appointed in November 2021.

While it’s true that the number of accredited safety inspectors is steadily on the rise, technical knowledge and know-how around inspections is still very much lacking. Without a practical and watertight framework in place, and while qualified inspectors are brought up to speed and their numbers increased, there’s a risk that the necessary checks are being missed, ultimately putting lives at risk.

Tech for better practice

The good news is that digital technology is making fire-safety inspection processes easier to manage. By allowing site staff to assign specific jobs between teams as well as share images and videos via cloud-based platforms, responsibility is issued to an individual, reducing the chance that vital works or checks are missed. 

It can also play a supporting role in delivering more thorough safety inspections for relevant fire-safety inspectors. Vital information can be accessed remotely, allowing users to view documented evidence from any location, while creating a tamper-proof digital record of all necessary works for sign-off.

Having an ability to collate and store digital evidence not only means that sign-off on new buildings could be easier, giving clear examples of how fire safety will be managed as part of planning gateway one applications, but should an event occur, developers will have the relevant information to hand to show work has been carried out through a tamperproof, digital audit trail.

At a time when fire safety needs to be managed with the utmost care, digital tools that support developers or contractors are an obvious next step. What we now need to see is more clarity around fire safety, and more developers and contractors dedicated to improving standards across the board. By doing so, awareness around the potential of digital tools will only increase, leading to a best-practice culture of safety standards and inspections.

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