Fire safety could not have been more in the public spotlight than has been the case through 2017 to 2019. Arguably Government has not shown a greater level of attention on fire safety since the Great Fire of London in 1666 left 85% of the capital’s population homeless. And authorities could not be more under pressure from growing community awareness of the severe threats that fire poses if more care is not given to fire prevention and protection in practice.
We’ve seen the Expert Panel set up by Government to provide focus on immediate issues as they arise. There has been a Government-sponsored test programme on cladding testing which has led to a major review of BS standards covering facade test methods and procedures. Initial reaction led to combustibility questions which in turn resulted in a blanket requirement for residential blocks over 18 m to only have classified non-combustible materials on external walls. There has also been a major test programme followed through first on plastic-based composite doors, resulting in their removal from the market and major soul searching by the sector.
That was followed by extensive testing of timber fire doors from 25 manufacturers, which proved successful in all respects with good pass results in all cases, several tests indicating very significant safety margins in extended levels of timber fire door performance. We are told that attention has shifted to other types of cladding now under consideration. There has been the major review of fire safety carried out by Dame Judith Hackitt initiated by the Government as an immediate response to concerns arising from preliminary considerations of the Grenfell fire, initiated and completed before the Moore Blick Inquiry had hardly got off the ground.
Now in June 2019 there are major consultations from Government on what amounts to a root-and-branch reform of the regulatory system, following from the Government’s clear statement that they accept all the recommendations from Hackitt, and of the way the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 works in practice. The proposals are extensive; and they require a major cultural re-adjustment towards fire safety as Hackitt concluded necessary at an early stage of the review. Is all this activity producing results? Is the level of attention given to fire safety in practice yet as good as it needs to be given the potential threat from fire? Is there still a belief that in some way “the system will provide” and provisions for protection against fire really don’t need special consideration? Is sufficient notice really being taken in practice to counter the threats of fire?
Especially, are the principles of built-in fire safety protection in the fabric of a building using compartmentation, fire separation and active fire suppression as fully understood as they should be? 2019 has so far seen four major fires in different types of buildings which have all hit the headlines because of the circumstances and extensive destruction in all cases. The Ocado warehouse fire, the Beechmere Retirement Home, the Willenhall hotel and the Samuel Garside residential block fires all suggest that fire can break out in any situation and that buildings remain highly vulnerable to fire unless special measures are taken to limit fire growth, spread and development.
Nobody was injured or killed, miraculously. But chance could so easily have determined otherwise. The buildings were either completely destroyed or substantially damaged. The writing is there on the wall for all to read. We do not want another shock like Grenfell or Lakanal House.
The Hackitt report suggested that the fire safety system for buildings in the UK is broken. Despite all the activity initiated by Government and the warnings from numerous fire safety organisations and individuals, significant improvements will not arise – and the system will remain broken – until conscious positive steps are made in the way buildings are designed, constructed and maintained for protection against fire.
Special measures are necessary. Buildings are not naturally resilient and robust against fire. Particular built-in fire-resistant barriers are needed throughout a building and especially in key critical locations. And not to provide adequate provisions against fire spread can only be a false economy, risking not only major losses but sooner or later, at some point, serious threats to innocent lives.