Are you up to speed on fire protection? Graham Ridout explores the implications of the regulatory framework and offers compliance tips for owners and occupiers
Since April 2007, owners or occupiers of non-domestic buildings with five or more occupants, including visitors, have been required by law – the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2006, or RRO – to have carried out a fire risk assessment of the premises. Even so, there is little doubt most buildings have not been assessed.
To make matters worse, there appears to be a lack of understanding by some professionals and contractors, including those involved in fit-outs, that a fire risk assessment is required if any alterations are carried out on the building.
James Glocking, technical director of the Fire Protection Association (FPA), asserts: “We are aware there is a significant shortfall in the number of buildings that have a valid risk assessment. The likely cause is a lack of awareness of the requirements of the RRO.”
FPA associate director Peter Wilkinson says that following FPA members’ responses to a recent evaluation of the RRO, which was commissioned by Communities and Local Government (CLG), it was clear that more effort is needed to promote both the order and need for fire risk assessment.
Wilkinson says members are also concerned that access to guidance is poor. “Many small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs) are still unaware of the CLG series of fire risk assessment guides, or the web access to them.” (See www.communities.gov.uk and search for fire risk assessment.)
Peter Jackman of International Fire Consultants is even more pessimistic about the level of compliance and estimates that less than 25% of all buildings have been assessed. He adds: “As well as a lack of awareness, there is also a skills shortage in the fire safety industry. There are a lot of people who are experts in a particular field, such as fire detection, extinguishers or emergency lighting, but very few can take a holistic overview. It is difficult for a single person to do a complete fire risk assessment because the task can be so large.”
Brian Pike, technical manager of Komfort Workspace and a member of the AIS technical committee, agrees that the number of fire risk assessments is low. “People don’t understand what it’s all about – it’s frightening,” he says.
“A lot of ex-firemen have set themselves up as assessors, but their expertise is in putting out fires, not putting together the documentation or identifying the composition of the structure. They are totally reliant on what the building occupier tells them.”
Pike’s main cause for concern, however, is the lack of understanding among some fit-out contractors and building owners about how what is specified and installed can affect the fire performance of a building, particularly if the work is done without professional advice.
“Whilst the owner or occupier of the building is responsible for carrying out the risk assessment, the architect/designer/interior contractor has a duty of care to ensure any work carried out meets all Fire Regulations and that a risk assessment is carried out,” says Pike.
“A reputable fit-out company will ensure everything is in order. But a lot of fit-outs are subcontracted out to small, inexperienced companies, which may not understand what fire-rating is required or how installation techniques and materials used affect fire integrity.
“For example, a contractor might have installed a fire door, but is it the right type of frame? It is especially worrying if you can’t identify all the components. A lot of people don’t even have a clue about which type of glass to use, or how to install it,” explains Pike.
Jackman agrees: “I’ve found so many instances where the fire-resistant glass has been installed incorrectly. It is critical that the glass is fitted within a tolerance of 2mm. If not, the glass can fracture within a couple of minutes. Some glass should only be fitted within a metal frame, but you do see it in timber frames.”
He says one of the common failings is that the fire resistance of a building component can be compromised by a follow-on trade. “You can have a plaster and stud wall with a 90-minute rating. Then, an electrician comes along and fits two plastic socket boxes – one on either side of the wall – so you end up with a wall with the fire resistance of two plastic boxes.”
Jackman is also critical of Part B of the Building Regulations, which he says does not take into account modern methods of construction, such as composite panels. “The guidance given doesn’t recognise the risk.”
So how can building owners and occupiers ensure their building is compliant and above all safe? Pike recommends using a reputable interior contractor to carry out fit-out work.
“AIS members, in particular, go through vetting processes on a regular basis,” he says. “They are generally well-established, experienced companies and benefit from a wide range of support available from their trade association.”
Jackman agrees: ”There is general agreement that making the owner or operator of the buildings responsible for the fire safety is the way to go. They will soon learn that when installations have been done by professionals, they will achieve a positive assessment more easily.”
The common faults
- Specifying the wrong type of fire-resisting glass, or exceeding the permitted dimensional tolerances when installed.
- Integrity of component compromised by other fitments, such as installing electrical equipment within a fire-rated wall, or running cables inside a fire door so it can be electronically opened and closed.
- Fire doors fitted without correct intumescent seal or fixed to non fire-rated frames, or having inappropriate door furniture.
- Misunderstanding which type of fire-rating is required for a component. Does it need to have just integrity; in other words, it will provide 60 minutes of resistance against the spread of flame, or does it also need to be insulated so that heat cannot pass through a wall and ignite something within the adjoining compartment?
- Not checking that the complete assembly, such as a door and all fitments, has the necessary certification.
What’s fire risk assessment all about?
What’s new? The former practice of Fire and Rescue Services issuing fire certificates for non-domestic premises ceased in April 2007. From that date, legislation in the form of Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2006 meant the onus is now on owners and occupiers to carry out a fire risk assessment to certify their premises are safe. The new legislation is tied into Part B of the Building Regulations covering fire safety, and guidelines were issued on the criteria for fire risk assessments.
Who’s responsible? Occupiers or owners of non-domestic buildings in which five or more people, including visitors, are present. The Order says someone should be named as the ‘responsible’ person appointed to ensure compliance.
What does it cover? Everything to do with fire safety, including alarm and detection systems, fire extinguishing equipment, escape routes, and fire resistance properties of the building’s components, furniture and fittings.
What’s required? Records to show that the risks have been assessed, accompanied by all the necessary documentation, such as fire-test certificates confirming compliance of components including doors and partitioning.
How often? The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order is deemed as “live” legislation; therefore, any changes to
the building, its components, layout, etc are subject to reassessment.
Who polices compliance? Officials from the local authority, the Health and Safety Executive and Fire and Rescue Service.
What’s the risk of non-compliance? Buildings can be closed and those responsible can face heavy fines and up to two years in prison. Also, insurance companies may not pay out in the event of fire damage. The Institution of Fire Engineers has an accreditation scheme for assessors and their names can be accessed via www.ife.org.uk and clicking on the tab ‘Register of fire risk assessors and auditors’.