How can fire safety be improved today?

Fire safety is something people often take for granted. With the exception of fire service personnel, rarely would one see a fire occur, and it is even rarer for an individual to witness a fire take a life. With recent media coverage of fatal fires around the world, many have been exposed to the dangers fire still poses in building. This has naturally brought questions about fire safety and suitability of regulations into sharp focus. So, what can be changed in the short term to improve fire safety in both future construction and existing buildings?

Aspects of fire safety

There are many facets of fire safety for the built environment, but distilled down into the most basic forms, there are five, namely:

  1. Legislation and Regulation requirements
  2. Consideration of flammability and behavior of materials in fire
  3. Design provisions and associated approvals
  4. Construction methodology and associated approvals
  5. Ongoing operation of a building and the associated maintenance

When considering near misses and life loss incidents related to fire, often a number of these areas of concern have failed, and with major loss, the failure has likely occurred in more than one way.

Changes in UK regulation

The majority of legislation and regulation development is the result of a major incident. Throughout the U.K., preference has tended towards compartmentation (passive protection), in part due to an aged water supply infrastructure at the time fire safety regulations were first drafted.

The same is true with respect to approaches to means of escape, permitted materials, fire resistance of structure, and fire department access. Regardless of the geographic location, regulations are often vague or open to interpretation. Why is that? The guidance or regulation is trying to solve every situation with one document and reduce reliance on the need for expertise to solve a particular safety concern.

The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 reversed the approach of waiting for disaster, and instead focused on prevention. This ties in item number five above – is the property being used and maintained in the way it was designed? The three biggest offenses in this area of building management are:

  1. Are the escape paths clear and unobstructed?
  2. Are fire doors allowed to close or are they blocked open by something?
  3. Are the fire extinguishers charged and in the correct location and ready for use
    by persons trained in their use?

In the UK, as passive protection is the primary protection, blocked open fire doors are of significant concern, along with storage in escape paths. The need for a streamlined approach Design and construction coordination is addressed through the Construction Design and Management Regulations 2015. When a builder follows the design, there is a level of assumption that the design is correct, as it has both been designed by a chartered professional, and approved by the authority. Regardless, a builder will often, as they piece together a building, determine if there are unusual approaches – they have the ability to raise those questions. Equally, when a builder requests to build in a different manner than designed, the designer can object. In both instances, the authority should be involved. In any of these conditions, how should those parties behave if the design issue is outside of their area of expertise? While you may think that bringing in an expert is the correct response, that often does not happen.

Chartered engineers and architects are viewed favorably by owners and developers in the design process. As an example, structural work requires a chartered structural engineer to sign off. However, a chartered fire engineer is rarely a requirement on the project. Globally, qualified fire engineers (the people who have a fire safety degree, years of experience, and who write the standards and guides available worldwide) are commonly avoided by design teams – perceived as an unnecessary cost. There is no requirement, and limited guidance, that states how alternative approaches should be approved. A chartered fire engineer is not required to be involved in fire safety. So, if fire safety is reduced with a qualitative argument, who will know? What does that do to safety when the expert is limited in scope or, worse, prevented from being part of the solution?

How to improve fire safety

Without massive overhaul of legislation, and the years required to develop sound changes in guidance, two simple things can fundamentally change fire safety:

  1. Have qualified fire engineers be part of the design team, including multi-disciplinary reviews, to verify coordinated fire safety design across disciplines and inspect the constructed product as well as the building inspector, and
  2. Engage, educate and empower building users to ensure passive protection
    measures are used (fire doors closed, clear escape paths).

So…have you replaced your smoke alarm batteries? Are your fire doors able to close? Fire safety is of utmost importance in any building, no matter the type, and getting advice from a professional is key to ensuring individuals are fully protected.

By Simon Goodhead