Out of the Frying Pan… The Fire Safety Order Act 10 years on

Ten years ago, far-reaching new legislation was introduced to improve fire safety in buildings. But did it work? A panel of experts at FIREX 2016 was sceptical.

When the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 replaced the Fire Prevention Act 1971 in England and Wales, regulators had a single aim – reducing bureaucracy. Deaths from fire had fallen to around 30 per year, down from their devastating numbers of up to 150 in the 1980s. However, the number of fires had actually risen, from around 21,000 in 1982 to a peak of 87,500 in 2001/02. Consultation found that too much paperwork played a part, and fire certificates were duly scrapped under the new law.

But the new process had unintended consequences. According to FIREX 2016 panel experts, placing the burden of the newly introduced fire risk assessments on potentially unqualified operators might have been a step in the wrong direction. “For the fire authorities, it meant a shift from unpaid fire consultants to becoming the fire safety police,” says Colin Todd of C.S.Todd Associates. “Suddenly they were either Dixon of Dock Green or the Sweeney. Between 2007 and 2014 there were 473 prosecutions under the order in England and Wales. In Scotland [where different regulations apply] there were just three.”

So the original aim of reducing bureaucracy seems to have missed its mark, especially for business. “For large enterprises who thought they could handle the new protocol much better in-house, it wasn’t five minutes before some of the biggest prosecutions in history, with one large petroleum company being fined a record £300,000,” Todd continues.

‘Spectacular failings’

Shifting the burden of the process away from enforcement bodies and onto premises owners and managers themselves may have done some good but it also created some spectacular failings. One early case saw a landlord imprisoned for eight months for failing to provide a correct fire risk assessment. He hadn’t even bothered to read the guidance.

But the system seems to have further shortcomings. The available guidance, meant to help landlords or premises managers to complete fire risk assessments correctly, is of variable quality. “Some of the guidance available hasn’t got the same force as the government guidance,” says Andy Jack, Head of Enforcement at the London Fire Brigade. “What’s more, part of it hasn’t been reviewed in ten years.” Some of the language used in the legislation is ambiguous, giving rise to different interpretations by practitioners which could lead to confusion – one prominent example being the definition of ‘suitable and sufficient competency’.

The latter is a particular sticking point given the lack of regulation in this area. “There is currently no national register for risk assessors and their qualifications,” says Ross Newman, Principal Technical Officer at Exova Warrington. “There are several different lists but nothing unified and nothing of a compulsory nature.”

So where to go from here?

An expert review has yielded a number of recommendations. It calls for greater collaboration between regulators with additional formal agreements. A register for competent persons like Gas Safe should be established and separate guidelines for the independent sheltered housing sector drawn up. Whereas only qualified persons should be able to carry out risk assessments, the Home Office should also urgently review its guidance on the subject. The last point is the one the FIREX 2016 panel members think is the most likely to be realised in the next five years.

But Colin Todd remains realistic. “It might have to come to another major disaster before things really shift. If that happens, who knows – they might just introduce a formal framework. Or – you guessed it – re-introduce fire certificates.”

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