Is it time for change in regards to fire safety laws and transparency?
The blackened and charred concrete shell of Grenfell became a pivot point in British politics within minutes of hitting the headlines, a stark symbol of inequality and injustice, and a horrifying example of bureaucratic procrastination and red-tape.
BY BRADLEY PALLISTER
As the news broke that Wednesday morning, my first thought was “again?”
That brutal morning that will be forever seared into the hearts of the people. Whether it leaves the same scar in the seat of British law and politics is still to be seen.
We all know the tale of Lakanal. How refurbishments which were performed with all good intent and without the apparent cost-cutting in Grenfell’s case, ironically resulted in the compromise in fire safety of the building and lending assistance to the cause of six deaths. It was eight long years after this devastating incident before the prosecutor’s gavel finally hit the sounding block.
It’s an all-too-common issue in the fire safety management sphere: there isn’t enough transparency, responsibilities are too dispersed and detached, and there are few, if any, proper systems to ensure accountability.
While being the biggest revision of fire safety guidance since 1971, the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order: 2005 was a bold move. One that relieved the strained fire and rescue services of some responsibility, and placed it in the hands of the newly created “Responsible Person”, a move the was intended to remove multiple and overlapping fire safety provisions and replace it with a single fire safety arrangement.
The aim was to reduce complexity. To de-jargon the technical and crucial nature of fire safety. And to make this new figurehead, the “Responsible Person”, shoulder the responsibility of deciding and following through the fire safety arrangements instead of the local fire service.
In a typically British fashion, the reduction of complexity brought in doubt. Over ten years since the RRO came in, there is still doubt as to who is ultimately responsible for fire safety in premises.
While sharing some of the lessons identified at Lakanal with housing management and building control professionals, London Fire Brigade was told in July 2014 that increased competition had affected the performance of this vital function. Council building control teams said they were under-staffed. The prices they tendered were not high enough to provide the work properly. The competition had forced reduced rigor to win work and specifications were cracked as a result.
Those who aren’t experts, but who is responsible for results, need to know the right questions to ask to fulfill that responsibility.
Fire safety laws are complex, and responsibilities for their adherence are spread across many agencies and individuals. There’s no doubt that there’s room for confusion in the current format in the UK’s fire safety laws, guidelines, and policies.
I believe that the Grenfell inquiry should recommend that councils be responsible for producing an annual report on fire safety in their areas. They should know where in their jurisdiction assessments have been done, who has done them, and what the outcome was.
The duty should be laid on fire authorities to proactively provide councils with information about enforcement action. Councils should be told when buildings fail, and councils should be held accountable for the follow-through to achieve compliance.
Some fires can be made abundantly worse by the buildings themselves and what has been done to it than fires resulting from actions such as smoking, cooking, or exploring appliances. London Fire Brigade used to collect this type of data, but it isn’t often published unless by FOI. It’s overdue for that to change. There should be more fire investigators, paid for by the government.
We rely on our fire services to send brave men and women to save lives in even the worst and most dangerous of fires. Grenfell proved that our firefighters are more than ready to go over and above their call of duty, risking their own lives in the saving of others.
A step-change in public policy, review, and accountability is desperately needed to reduce the number of fires that start in the first place. It’s required to ensure that they cause as little damage to the property and danger to people as possible when they do. The Grenfell Tower disaster, just like the Lakanal House tragedy eight years before it, shows that we are still failing in this vital task.
It never needed the ashes of Lakanal and Grenfell to make this change happen.
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About me: I am one of the project managers at Ventro Group, a Passive Fire consultancy firm specialising in the auditing, maintenance, and installation of all passive fire safety systems and equipment including fire compartmentation, fire doors, fire stopping and fire dampers. I head up a team with a particular focus on passive fire prevention in social housing. Views are my own, but generally, I write about my thoughts on fire safety.