Experts criticise ‘broken’ fire safety laws
A RANGE of fire safety professionals noted that both austerity and cutting red tape have ‘rendered self-regulation “useless”’.
HuffPost UK reported the experts’ views in the light of both the Grenfell Tower fire and its subsequent inquiry. The site noted ‘crucial fire safety tests’ are carried out on ‘less than one-in-twenty at-risk buildings each year’, with professionals interviewed stating that the fire safety system is ‘broken’ and ‘should be overhauled’, questioning if the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order [FSO] is ‘fit for purpose’ and ‘exposing millions of people to danger’.
In 11 years since the FSO was introduced, owners of commercial and ‘common parts’ of residential buildings have been ‘responsible for assessing fire risk’, with professionals interviewed stating that a ‘toxic combination’ of austerity and ‘slashing red tape’ has made self regulation ‘pretty much useless’ due to issues with enforcement.
Fire services carry out audits to ensure fire risk assessments (FRAs) are undertaken, but the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) stated the number of fire safety officers in England ‘is less than half’ the 1,500 employed in 2006, those remaining auditing ‘less than 5%’ of properties’ each year. The FBU also claimed audits are ‘superficial’ or ‘desktop exercises’, and cited ‘enhanced’ checks carried out in Camden.
These, from London Fire Brigade (LFB), saw the Chalcots Estate towerblocks evacuated due to ‘scores of faults that had been previously overlooked’, and the FBU pointed out private sector fire consultants carrying out assessments of complex buildings ‘do not need any qualifications or training’. While deaths have fallen to a ‘record low’ in the last 10 years, the experts believe trends such as fewer smokers and coal fires ‘are masking how dangerous buildings are’.
David Sibert, the FBU’s fire safety advisor, commented: ‘I’ve described it for years as walking along the cliff edge. We haven’t got the resources anymore to stop these things happening, and so we are building problems into our built environment because we aren’t on top of it anymore. You end up inspecting fewer and fewer of your high risk buildings. You’re still inspecting the highest risk ones. You’re still doing what the government says you must do, you’ve got the risk assessment re-inspection programme. You’re just only inspecting the very highest risk ones.’
The experts interviewed said ‘too many buildings remained potentially dangerous’ even after the Lakanal House fire in 2009 and its inquest, which ‘exposed how no fire checks had been carried out’. Self policing is ‘failing because of cuts to public spending’, with 18% fewer fire safety audits completed in 2015/16 compared to 2009/10, while 30% of audited buildings were ‘unsatisfactory’.
The FSO meant more buildings became subject to fire safety law, but Mr Sibert noted ‘we’ve got less than half the number of people’ to check, calling government expectations of local fire service re inspections ‘weasel words’. He added common problems are walls and doors, while it was a ‘regular thing’ that buildings have not had any FRAs.
Chartered surveyor and fire safety expert Arnold Tarling inspected London blocks ‘where problems should have been apparent for more than a decade’ but were not picked up, noting ‘a lot of the surveys are purely superficial. They just gloss over the surface’. Mr Sibert added ‘an audit is a lightweight inspection, basically. They wouldn’t walk around the building to actually see whether or not anything on the fire risk assessment was true’.
He pointed out unregulated fire assessors are a ‘deeply worrying’ development, with no mandatory registration or certification, though while there are some ‘very dodgy assessors’, there are also ‘many highly-skilled and reliable consultants’. Mr Tarling added that ‘buildings that have not been altered from the 1960s and 1970s are far safer than the ones that have. Grenfell and Lakanal would never have happened had they been left as they were’.
Mr Tarling’s view was that the FSO ‘is very widely open to interpretation. And they’ll interpret who got something wrong when something goes wrong. It’s not fit for purpose’. Sibert concluded meanwhile that ‘if you do have a fire the risk from that fire to you is exactly the same as it ever was. So you need just as many fire engines. The fire service has desperately tried to keep as many fires engines available as it needed, and that has meant that they’ve had to make cuts elsewhere. And that’s in fire safety’.