Competency is now the key word illustrated both by fire safety reforms and politics.

It isn’t often that headlines in the political sphere and fire safety overlap and become joined by a common theme.  In the USA, the UK Ambassador’s recent reporting back to London is revealed to have apparently expressed disparaging reservations over the White House environment. We are told, not denied by Government, of “unvarnished assessment” touching on effectiveness and functionality, reportedly describing the process as inept, unpredictable and riven by factions. 

Back home, Government might possibly think similar thoughts over the state of the construction industry attention on fire safety. 

Government has said that the shock of the enormity of the deaths in the horrific Grenfell fire has shaken trust.  Their response is a completely new regulatory structure of major reform proposals to effectively re-set fire safety on to new, more rigorous, robust and secure foundations. The extent of the reforms serves to illustrate the depth of concerns.

At the heart of the fire safety reforms, the Ambassador’s assessment and other threads running through the political landscape with its Brexit backdrop is the core concept of Competency (and of course the other side of the coin: incompetency).

But as both the Ambassador’s observations and the immediate instinctive reaction from the President Trump camp well reveal – thoughts on incompetency are subjective, dependent on a particular perspective and set of circumstances interpreted in a particular way.  We tend to recognise, or think we recognise, incompetency more than we would recognise competency, which tends to be automatically assumed and taken for granted. Who, other than for obscure devious means, might set out intentionally to act incompetently? No one.

The Government’s Regulatory Reform puts Competency centre stage.  That’s closely linked with personal Responsibility and Accountability for particular key named individuals in the design, construction and running of buildings.

The regulatory reform proposes an overarching competency council.  The process has started by running twelve working groups to examine competency considerations for some important professional roles, under the Construction Leadership Council which in turn will work with the Industry Safety Steering Group.  

But competency for fire safety is not yet sufficiently well-defined for common buy-in; and not yet explained clearly enough for all to absorb. That is an important first task for the oversight bodies and the new Building Safety Regulator. 

It has yet to be defined clearly enough what is actually meant in practice by competency.

How the competency of a whole industry can be pulled up to higher standards and levels of awareness in certain respects in double quick time is not yet given enough attention.  It is apparently assumed that levels of competency will be self-evaluated and that individuals will make their own honest assessments of what is needed for themselves. It is seemingly presumed by the reform that the right procedures and structures will emerge and that there will be enough competent people out there already to provide the training and development resource that will be needed to bring the whole industry up to common levels defined by acceptable standards (whatever those are ….).  

Above all in a field that is substantially practical the establishment needs to move away from reliance for competency on just academic-style learning.

Fire safety concerns practical matters; and formal training and qualifications through certificates can only take participants to first base. Theory isn’t enough.  Attendance at an information presentation or series of talks in a classroom environment does not magically make somebody completely competent enough in all important respects. Practical skills, know-how and expertise derived from personal and shared experiences are important for competency in fire safety. Personal attitudes are also important: there is no point in having the knowledge and awareness if that is not acted upon and carried out in practice. Understanding should go hand-in-hand with knowledge and experience.

Undoubtedly awareness and knowledge of products and product systems is key for many in the design, specification, procurement, supply and installation networks feeding construction. Above all, assumptions and unfounded decisions must not be made.  

In all cases, those seeking product information should go to the competent product supplier – that is the one who intimately knows and works with the product, knows the technology and importantly has the first-hand proprietary knowledge of the test performance of the product and the key product characteristics that underpin performance, making the product what it is for fire safety.

For ceramic glass there are important characteristics concerning its advantages in providing a long-lived resilient transparent barrier against fire which set it distinctively apart from standard fire-resistant glass. Ceramic has its own properties and key qualities for use in fire.  It is a distinctive material in its own right, with its own characteristics. And assumptions based only on experiences just with standard glass, or only theoretical handed-down explanations, are certainly not in any way sufficient at all to understand how ceramic glass performs in fire. 

FireLite and Sprinkler Systems

Sprinkler reliability makes another splash

Fire safety specialists can often be seen scratching their heads with furrowed brows in frustration and disbelief that sprinklers and other basic fire suppression systems are not more widely adopted in the UK than they currently are. The technology is straightforward. The intention quite fundamental in containing fire, working with compartmentation to limit the chances of early stage fire growth. The aim is to hold fire in check so that the fire and rescue service has time to finish the job of putting the fire out and mopping up.

Why suppression is not more widely adopted is something of a mystery. To reinforce the point, sprinkler advocates are quick at coming forward with reminders of the function and reliability of sprinkler systems based on statistical data, in the main from the USA. It’s all water under the bridge. But several major fires where the building was substantially destroyed have inevitably brought sprinklers back into the headlines.

Up-to-date information points to a high level of sprinkler reliability. A review of data made available suggests 95% operation where sprinklers are present combined with 99% effectiveness, which gives a bottom line overall operational reliability of 94%. Of course, failures are not unknown. It’s wise not to think sprinklers are infallible. That’s why, just like all safety systems, there needs to be back-up should events turn out in a way that was not originally assumed. Fire is notoriously unpredictable. That needs to be reflected in the use of integrated fire safety systems using suppression with effective fire separation barriers.

Of course, hot glass does not like cold water. That has to be a major factor given that modern buildings are so extensively founded on internal transparency and openness using glazing. Standard glass products are notoriously susceptible to thermal stress shock fracture. Failure under even quite mild stresses is likely.

But there is an answer. Fire-resistant ceramic glass is available here in the UK. It is specifically designed in its composition to be immune to thermal stress, with an ability to stay in one piece, untouched, even when covered from top to bottom and side to side with cold water. In testing FireLite has successfully shown resilience when sprayed with water after even 4-hour exposure in a fire-resistance test furnace. Ceramic glass is well known for its resilience to the USA firefighter hosestream test, under the impact of a high pressure full-on cold water stream over the hot exposed surface. Resilience against thermal stress shock is a remarkable property of ceramic glass. And that’s very useful in fire combined with water when confidence and assurance of fire safety – reducing risk to the lowest possible level – is a key requirement.


Building a Safer Future: Reform of the building fire safety regulatory system – ticking the box and doing the bare minimum is no longer good enough

On 6 June the Government launched a major consultation covering proposals for a new fire safety regulatory regime primarily for high-rise residential blocks as well as consultation on a significant updating of the Fire Safety Order 2005 (FSO) for occupied non-domestic buildings.

The Government’s intent after all the shocks to fire safety is very clear: enforcement will be tightened and much better compliance achieved by holding named individuals responsible and accountable, subject even to legal process.
The proposals amount to a major revolution in the regulatory regime for fire safety in buildings. Fire safety will not be the same in the future as it has been in the past. The Government is seeking endorsement, but their course is clearly set. They are not asking questions over the structure of the changes – which is effectively fixed – but only on some of the associated finer details.

In May Communities Secretary James Brokenshire had made a clear that the scandal of unsafe fire risk cladding was a matter of Public Safety and could not be tolerated. Now we see the follow-up. There will be a new control system. A new Safety Regulator will be created to monitor, oversee, direct and take action, bringing even criminal charges if necessary. And there will, for sure, be less likelihood than in the past of fire safety not being given the focus that the risks of fire demand.

The main theme in the proposed reform of the building regulatory system is to tighten fire safety by focusing on a whole building and whole process approach concentrated and based on the risks of fire. Better compliance and stronger enforcement are the aims. Named individuals in key roles – for example the person owning and operating the building when occupied, the client for building projects, and key actors in the process such as the Principal Designer and the Principal Contractor – will be named, registered and held responsible and accountable as key recognised duty holders.

The scope concerns at this point high-rise residential buildings (over 18m) concerning new build from the beginning of the approvals and planning process through design to occupation. That’s where the most urgent response is needed. It is also proposed to extend the system to embrace refurbishment as well. But there are pointers in the consultation that the new system will not stop there. Higher risk types of buildings and occupancies are included in the consultation, for both building regulations and the FSO.

It isn’t sensible to have more than one building regulatory regime in action. So the common expectation is that the principles declared in this regulatory reform will come to be applied to all types and functions of buildings covering fire safety.

As paragraph 238 of the reform declares, the Government are considering placing all duty holders under a general duty to promote building safety and the safety of people in and around buildings. A duty is an implicit obligation. And duty holders are expected to be self-aware, to self-evaluate their competencies to discharge their core duties.

The Building a Safer Future consultation proposes that the central Building Safety Regulator (BSR) responsible for the new regime will provide what are referred to as “effective incentives” to those responsible for buildings (including those in responsible roles in the design, supply and build process) “to deliver high standards of safety”.

Those high standards cannot be achieved by just ticking boxes or doing just the bare minimum the reform makes unambiguously clear.

  • A three-step approach is proposed:
  • Reinforcement of operating standards and provision for professional guidance, on an “informal” basis (it is said) to secure compliance. What one could say is “friendly but firm advice”.
  • Proactive (and forceful) intervention and monitoring by the BSR to secure compliance, perhaps involving stop notices or improvement notices: effectively determined policing.

If non-compliance still persists then the Regulator can take formal enforcement action, which can include formal orders, penalties, perhaps revocation of the building safety certificate and even prosecution (which includes mention of criminal offences): a resort to unbending legal action.

A risk-based approach to building safety linked with the aim to develop high standards means that there will need to be a whole range of measures employed to minimise fire hazards and to reduce potential fire risks to manageable and controllable levels.

Clearly different building risk and occupancy profiles need to be countered by packages of fire safety provisions and precautions that are aligned and in accordance with those risks. That’s the central rationale for risk-based design.

Discussions within the fire safety sector are already talking of considering the measures that are necessary for property protection (not currently a main objective of building regulations).

It is natural that building owners and principal designers will now look ever more towards enhanced levels of protection against fire to protect both people and property assets.

The higher standards that come from considering property protection implicitly and automatically lead to higher standards to counter the higher risks from fire to people, especially in large and tall multi-occupancy buildings where escape is not so easy given major fire occurrence either inside or outside and where there is little margin for mistakes and assumptions on what might or might not happen.

Time is critically important in fire. And the threat of rapid fire growth in modern combustible building environments means that secure fire containment linked with effective suppression to minimise fire intensity and spread will become more important. Thoughts naturally lead to the application of sprinklers. And to longer fire resistance times for barriers intended to provide fire compartmentation. For protected escape the minimum standard is to provide 30-minute fire-resistant barriers determined in a furnace standardised test, when exposed to full fire development from one side.

Given the delays and confusions that can so easily arise in complex and congested buildings, 30 minutes is barely enough. In some cases, 60 minutes may be specified, but on a limited basis. But for more intense and longer fire times much longer fire resistance capability enhanced levels of resilience exposure are really required if risks are to be minimised to the lowest possible level.

The new system will be much less tolerant of unwarranted risks being taken with people’s lives.

Much longer robust resistance times are possible. FireLite ceramic because of its nature is effectively immune to thermal stress and has a high melting point well above typical temperatures in developed fire conditions. It has a well-established record of testing for a four hours exposure – retaining a transparent whole barrier, without any significant change. FireLite is also comfortable if sprayed by water from a firefighter hose stream or from an array of sprinklers. It is entirely possible to combine FireLite ceramic with sprinkler arrays to form a water curtain glazed array if designers want to search for the highest levels of assured protection against fire.

If better fire safety and higher standards are the aim now as this building regulatory reform intends, then the designer needs to look further afield than just on the standard minimum provisions that have come to be regarded as all that is necessary. If they do look further afield, then the designers and specifiers will find that there are solutions there, available to provide enhanced levels of fire-resistant protection against fire up to and including four hours under furnace test conditions of robust resistance using resilient ceramic glass which remains unchanged under aggressive fire conditions.


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