Sarah Stevenson-Jones describes how social housing organisations are collaborating to develop the sector-specific tools to meet fire safety standards.

WITH THE inquest into the 2009 Lakanal House tower block fire in south London well under way at the time of publication, it is perhaps an appropriate time to reflect on some of the impacts of this high profile fire on the housing sector.
While the events that unfolded there led to a tragic loss of life, they and the continuing level of media interest in the case and in fire safety in general have had a positive effect on the housing sector by galvanising it into action.
By 2009 – several years after the enactment of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (FSO) – many social housing landlords across England and Wales had still not completed fire risk assessments on all, or in some cases any of their properties.
Need for review
Following the Lakanal House fire, there was what can only be described as a mass stampede by organisations to put risk assessments in place, but unfortunately many found themselves at the mercy of unregulated, often incompetent fire risk assessors with insufficient knowledge of the intricate considerations required by the sector.
Repeatedly over the years, housing providers have had cause to regret their rashness and bemoaned the substandard quality of their risk assessments. Many have had to procure new assessments at significant cost to their organisations.
The production of substandard risk assessments does not rest solely with consultants and there are many excellent risk assessors specialising in residential assessments. However, a lack of knowledge and understanding within the sector itself about what constitutes a suitable and sufficient risk assessment is a root cause. 
Several bodies have attempted to provide client organisations with assistance on the selection of competent risk assessors – notably the Fire Risk Assessment Competency Council with its Competency Criteria for Fire Risk Assessors guide – and the number of registers offering the services of ‘competent’ fire risk assessors is growing.
But to date, the housing sector itself still has not defined either what combination of knowledge and experience it requires from an assessor to complete a risk assessment on a complex residential property, or what it deems to be the standard of a suitable and sufficient risk assessment for such buildings. Until these points are addressed, it is unlikely that clients will be assured of the quality of the risk assessments they are procuring, despite the use of ‘registered’ assessors.
Positive signs
New guidance was commissioned in 2010 by the Local Government Group, which represents more than 350 local authorities in England and Wales. Published in July 2011, the Fire Safety in purpose-built blocks of flats guide aims to help housing providers define this standard.
It is perhaps indicative of the prevailing view of the fire industry and fire sector regulators at the time, that the guide was drafted by a private consultancy and that, whilst numerous membership bodies were consulted about its content and scope, no housing sector (the actual end user) organisations were directly represented on the steering group. Despite this, the housing sector has come a long way in the last two years and has learned from past experiences, both good and bad. The majority of organisations have grasped the importance of managing fire safety and are beginning to recognise the many benefits, including financial, of having sound advice in this area. 
Salaries in the sector have improved and there has been a much-needed influx of competent fire safety professionals into client organisations. The result is that many organisations are now informed and educated clients and are themselves leading and driving the development of fire safety management, rather than relying on external consultants to offer advice and guidance.
Fire safety group
In September 2011, the National Social Housing Fire Safety Group (NHFSG) was formed to ensure the social housing sector is represented within the industry and is able to influence legislation, guidance and technical developments at a national level that directly affect its operations, clients and residents. 
Over the past year, it has evolved from an initial meeting between a number of social housing providers, the Fire Protection Association (FPA) and the Government’s Chief Fire and Rescue Adviser into a national framework of regional groups, representing more than 150 organisations and a million homes in England and Wales. 
The Group has been embraced by the UK fire industry and is represented in the Fire Sector Federation – a non-governmental organisation, established to act as a forum for fire-related issues across the UK fire sector. In addition, it has developed close working links at a local and national level with the Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOA).
Working through a network of regional groups, the NHFSG ensures that members can liaise and benchmark at a local level, while its national executive committee provides strategic direction and an interface with government and enforcement bodies. 
Having focused on growing its membership and ensuring that regional networks are operational during 2012, the executive is concentrating in 2013 on delivering sector-specific support and guidance 
to members. To this end, the executive has enabled a number of working groups which will be involved, along with interested third parties, in the production of technical guidance, competency standards and focused case studies to support its members.
Technical guidance
A technical group is currently working on producing guidance on the storage of mobility aids within communal parts of residential blocks of flats, outlining how organisations can manage their sometimes conflicting duties under the FSO and the Equalities Act 2010. 
In conjunction with the Fire Sector Federation, this work stream is also contributing to proposed guidance on fire safety management within sheltered, supported and extra care properties, aiming to bridge the gap between the existing guidance on care facilities and general-needs residential accommodation.
The publication of this guidance is likely to instigate a review of BS 9991: 2011: Fire safety in the design, management and use of residential buildings, in order to update the existing references to sheltered and supported accommodation contained therein.
Training and competency
In addition, a training and competency group is working with the Fire Protection Association to develop a qualification specifically aimed at enabling fire risk assessors to undertake suitable and sufficient assessments in the housing sector. This group is also involved in drafting a risk assessment template for use by housing organisations.
Organisations in the social housing sector are continuing to work more closely together to improve fire safety standards within residential properties across England and Wales. Along with fire industry professionals, they await the findings of the Lakanal House inquest with interest, as these could result in wide-ranging consequences across the sectors. 
Sarah Stevenson-Jones is chair of the National Social Fire Safety Group 
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