Dennis Davis describes how the impact of the Grenfell Tower fire further shaped work underway to improve industry competency
LAST YEAR’S terrible fire at Grenfell Tower has again highlighted an issue that has long concerned many in the fire sector – competency – and not just within its own workforce. The interim report of Dame Judith Hackitt on the building regulatory system has placed the subject centre stage.
So, what exactly caused the internal industry concern and the external inquiry alarm? Well, observed ignorance and poor skills in practice, leading to ineffective compartmentation wrongly fitted or breached in construction; improper fire risk assessments; failure to ensure adequate maintenance of installed fire defences; and a lack of knowledge and understanding in fire safety design, prevention and mitigation at the start of a building’s life.
Survey and matrix
Although nothing new, some of these problems had manifested at the Lakanal House fire, and this renewed the determination to gain a greater insight and try to find longer term solutions. A survey was conducted using the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) building life stage approach, slightly expanded to include more occupancy factors and the ultimate demolition stage, since this is where many economically damaging fires also occurred. The survey had definitions and a matrix designed to capture conclusions referenced to an axis devoted to the performance of ‘actors’ against what was now a twelve stage building life cycle.
The selected actors in different occupancies were rated from the fire safety awareness and skills perspective by informed fire practitioners, with scores made against each actor in the cycle and the occupancy – acknowledging that risk is essentially derived from assessment of people, property and purpose. The occupancies were care institutions; social housing; residential housing; public assembly; leisure and theatres; colleges and universities; retail stores; manufacturing and factories; storage and distribution; municipal buildings; utility structures; and heritage and culture.
These were placed within a graded 1-5 scale, progressing from those that had little defined concerning competency, to a range with some systems of support, recognised competency systems and recognised accreditation systems, and on to those with highly defined competency and accreditation systems in place. The outcome was plotted using a visual traffic light presentation to highlight perceived performance.
An early declared aim of this work, which predated the Grenfell Tower fire, was to help improve overall building fire safety management by addressing the competency needs of those who undertake, knowingly or not, the role of a building fire safety manager (FSM). The logic was that having a competent FSM in place would ensure a building would be used and maintained in accordance with its fire safety design, with scrutiny to react to the variations of occupancy occurring during any building’s life, thus supporting the legal requirements and concepts based within the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005.
A fire sector mapping exercise then took place to identify what systems already existed. There was a link here to the Fire Sector Federation (FSF) Competency Council’s published criteria and selection guides, as well as further discussion on certification, accreditation and registration. This was essentially a debate about how to improve the overall, then current situation. It included a proposal to introduce some form of fire sector ‘registration’ scheme, using the strengths within existing schemes, and an investigation of the inherent practicalities of any competency scheme, such as ownership, criteria, capacity, capabilities and legal constraints.
Following last June’s fire, all this work became eclipsed by the announcements of the public inquiry, building regulation review and ongoing investigations, as a result of which the priorities shifted. For instance, there was a sharper interest in specific matters such as fire risk definition of complex risk; fire risk assessment; professional fire engineering capacity; clarity of purpose and understanding across the fire and construction sectors. There was also a desire to drive forward a wider general awareness of fire, starting with interdisciplinary concerns and relationships between fire safety and fire science that were able to recognise matters of design, procurement, supply changes, responsibilities etc, and reaching out to all facets of fire in the built environment.
Although the earlier mapping exercise had offered a preview of the available professional discipline qualities on offer within the fire sector, it did not offer an oversight to the wider requirements that existed in the construction sector to meet specific roles and tasks for individuals or corporate entities. This gave rise to further effort to create a framework upon which all individual and corporate requirements might be viewed, to provide a more holistic oversight of the fire discipline.
Discussion and activity in this task has resulted in the production of a framework document. The aim is to help generate a multi disciplinary development of fire competency by outlining areas of study
to guide interpretation of those sourcing or delivering training and education. Founded on the principle that competency is a cornerstone of quality that takes in personal and corporate accountability along with ethical, moral and professional behaviour for public fire safety, the framework supports having ideally third party accredited recognised standards and qualifications.
It aims to help achieve higher levels of understanding, knowledge and practice assigned to any fire safety role. While not prescriptive, the intent is to secure better performance by illustrating the breadth of the fire discipline while highlighting what can be learned and applied, and what might exist but be outside an individual’s skill – knowing both what you know and what you don’t know.
Challenging common perceptions, such as the fact that fire is basic science, the framework informs complex interactions in the multiple areas that make up the built environment.
The message ‘one size certainly does not fit all circumstances’ is apparent, as is the requirement to integrate fire safety demands into multi discipline working and the application of skills to multiple activities.
The starting point is for all practitioners to have a fundamental understanding of the fire combustion process and the practical implication combustion has on safety from fire. Identification of the knowledge, skills and application needed follows, including matters related to the complexity of interpretation that have to be demonstrated. Centred on 14 core areas to maintain inherent flexibility, the wide parameters of the fire discipline become clear, as does the ability to meet specific needs using an adaptable structured implementation process relevant to the desired application – a type of ‘pick and mix’ approach – allowing roles and tasks to be professionally defined and assessed.
Levels of achievement follow the UK Regulated Qualifications Framework (RQF) in principle rather than prescription, and have awards that recognise learning, experience and practice that generally accumulate to represent the different responsibilities undertaken in the workplace. These qualifications are often associated with national occupational standards, including the replaced fire National Vocational Qualification and regulated qualifications such as City and Guilds, to demonstrate qualification from entry into work and before undergraduate degree education.
Assessment methodologies are also outlined based on practical outcomes that involve use of understanding and knowledge, being able to exercise judgement, recognising key principles, as well as acting ethically, morally and in accord with recognised technical considerations. This is followed by advice on recording and maintaining skills with continuous personal development – an area now seen by many
as suitable for mandatory compliance and public registration.
Many fire subjects are explained using curriculums for each of the core areas. The approach accords an element of national compatibility by endeavouring to create common content which in turn can be matched with levels of achievement supporting training, assessment and recording. Once again, the idea is to retain adaptability within limits, in order to avoid prescribing how delivery is made, and to embrace what exists and allow innovation in training development.
This is important, because in practice the range of users and uses is extensive, whether it is bricklayers building a fire compartment wall, ventilation contractors designing and installing fire extraction systems, fire engineers calculating thermal load and protection, or designers specifying insulation products. It was essential to cater for a wide user spectrum – especially during design and construction – while avoiding over complication and prescription, and maintaining a principled focus to secure a fire safe building. Additionally, once it is occupied, a building that may last more than 100 years is subject
to human interactions and behaviour of all kinds with factors such as health, unplanned use and misuse, additions, adaptations and countless other variations impacting on the fire safety integrity.
Accepting these variables, the curriculums help pave the way towards organising fire competency into auditable processes and schemes. They provide context, showing how one part of fire competency can be underpinned and associated with the holistic activity of fire safety. In addition, they help individuals to become and remain fully rounded practitioners and corporate entities to horizon scan for expertise to
meet demands in their specific environment and circumstances.
It is thought that an adaptable framework of this type can also be used to develop benchmarks for actual tasks and roles, such as fire risk assessor or fire safety manager. Benefits could then evolve to meet industrial or sector needs, eg having a specific standard route to attain skills, knowledge, training and experience, combined with external assessment and verification. This permits the adoption of competency that is aligned through certification, accreditation or even licence processes to publicly demonstrate the fire safety competency of corporate organisations and individual practitioners.
Given the emphasis placed on the subject in the interim Building a Safer Future report, the next steps are important ones. Questions have to be asked, not just about this framework’s content, but also wider matters of priorities, current professional capacity, the urgent raising of standards, overall provision, ownership, intervention and regulation.
Public fire safety has tragically been shown to be compromised, and existing barriers and defences to be inadequate. Professionally competent and ethically behaved organisations and individuals across the piece remain the key asset for fire safety in the future.
Dennis Davis is director of Independent Fire Advisers Limited. For more information, view page 5