Robust fire safety legislation is not enough to save lives while price is still the construction industry’s main concern, says Hugh Mahoney

The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 was designed to eliminate the confusion caused by the raft of legislation and local authority regulations on the subject. It also set out to clarify and enshrine systems managers’ legal duty of care, outlined in Approved Document B. The legislation provides a strong, sound basis for improving fire and smoke safety standards throughout the industry. So why is it still a case of “anything goes” when it comes to specifying smoke ventilation systems?

Manufacturers have risen to the challenge of meeting new European standards on safety and performance, and now have a legal obligation to provide products that have been type tested to these standards.

And yet safety and performance are being compromised by industry apathy. I believe this is because, when it comes to specifying smoke ventilation products, the construction industry is relied upon to police itself.

Unless this changes, decisions that could mean the difference between life and death will continue to be driven by cost – often without proper risk assessments and without a guaranteed benchmark for ensuring specified products are fit for purpose. Until the new regulations are formally policed, building projects and safety will be compromised.

A recent retail refurbishment project illustrated the consequences of apathy. Building design work was well advanced, the contractor had final approval and work was ready to begin when the fire service stepped in and condemned the plans as unsafe because the fire engineering solution, including the smoke clearance system, was not fit for purpose. The fire chief made clear that he would not send his crews into the building in the event of a blaze.

Until the new fire regulations are more formally policed, building projects and safety will be compromised

The 2005 Order has real teeth; if calamity did strike, designers, contractors and contractor managers could find themselves in the dock over failures in design, system specifications, building and installation defects. And yet, as an industry, we still don’t have the will to ensure procedures are in place to guarantee specified systems are fit for purpose. We need to demonstrate the determination to see that the spirit, as well as the letter, of the law is carried out. To that end, the Smoke Control Association is working to drive up standards with new guides and standards.

Responsible manufacturers complying with BS EN 12101 and BS 5588 will issue all necessary health and safety documents as a matter of course, in particular at project handover stage. Perhaps it is also time for manufacturers to become more forceful in demanding the same stringent application of safety procedures through specification and installation. It’s madness that they are investing large sums in complying with legislation, subjecting products to certification, only to see the systems fail when a contractor installs them inappropriately.

A few years ago I got a call from a plumber who said: “I’ve got one of your pressure differential fans. How do I make it work?” When I asked who had designed the system, it emerged that no one had – the main contractor had provided a rudimentary brief and simply asked the plumber for a price.

What we need is a new industry mantra – that cheapest is not always right. And, most importantly, we need buy-in from architects, specifiers and building control officers so that no system is specified, integrated, fitted or signed off without set procedures that prove its compliance with the law and written guarantees that it is the right system for the job.

The main responsibility has to lie with building contract managers. The onus should be on them to demand proof of a product’s safety, performance and environmental credentials. Until that happens, designs, reputations, building performance and lives will be at risk.