Why we need to rip up the fire safety rule book

TODAY WE’LL get Dame Judith Hackitt’s interim report on building safety standards following last June’s Grenfell Tower fire in London. It’s expected to be damning of the current regulations and culture.

If I was in Dame Judith’s shoes, I’d send all the current regulations be sent to the incinerator.

The reason? The huge gap between what people SHOULD be doing regarding lighting and fire safety and what they actually ARE doing.

The recent LuxLive exhibition and conference had a special area devoted to emergency lighting. It was called the Escape Zone and I hosted and listened to two days of presentations and discussions. I also chaired the lively discussions and Q&A sessions.

Six months on from the Grenfell fire, many faciiities manager still don’t know their responsibilities for building safety Pic: Natalie Oxford

What struck me most was the gulf between the experts and the audience. There didn’t appear to be one person who was fully aware of their responsibilities and who had fulfilled them according to the current legislation.

Remember that the audience were interested in the topic and had made a special trip to learn more about emergency lighting. There were facilities managers, property owners, consulting engineers, electricians, maintenance engineers, landlords; just about everyone who might have an interest in emergency lighting.

I’m no expert in emergency lighting but it seems to me that the root cause of the problem is the Regulatory Reform Order of 2005. Previous to this, the local fire authority would issue a fire certificate and a fireman or fire engineer would assess a building and determine that the lighting, signage, escape routes were safe. I.e. it was a professional who had almost daily experience of fires and escape methods who determined the risk and issues involved.

The RRO changed all that. Now, the building must have a ‘responsible person’, who doesn’t have to be a fire expert. They are responsible for the fire safety aspects of the building. The essence of the RRO is that a fire risk assessment should be undertaken and a fire safety report is issued. The fire fafety report will include details – including up to date drawings – of the emergency lighting as well as designated escape routes.

It is quite likely that the responsible person will delegate this task to someone else to do the assessment and write the report. In principle, this would be someone who is an expert in the field of fire safety but, since the profession is not regulated, anyone can set themselves up as a fire safety expert. It is only in a court case that their competency could be challenged.

The most worrying aspect of all this is that whenever we asked the audience, typically around 60 people at any one time, who had seen the fire risk assessment and up to date drawings for their buildings, not one said they had.

Just think. Of all the people who came and listened to the sessions, we couldn’t find one who fully knew their responsibilities or who had seen up-to-date fire documentation for their building.

When we asked a similar question about whether the office layouts or corridors had changed and the fire risk assessment drawings been updated, again we got a similar answer.

Personally, I don’t blame the audience for this. After all, they came to learn.

Maybe we should blame the legislation which uses woolly words like ‘responsible’, ‘competent’, ‘risk assessment’ and puts the onus on a non-specialist for what might be a life or death situation.