Five things we learned from our fire safety event for housing professionals
CIH head of practice Debbie Larner reflects on the debate at CIH London’s fire safety event, held in partnership with the London Fire Brigade.
This was the fourth fire safety event organised by our London board. This year the focus was on practical solutions to fire safety; issues that housing professionals could take back to their organisations and start work on straight away.
Sharing information is vital
The event itself was a really valuable opportunity for people to talk to each other, get a sense of what everyone else is doing, and to find out what measures have worked. I can’t stress enough how useful it is for housing professionals to share their experiences. It was great to hear about the approaches being taken by the London boroughs of Croydon and Ealing during the formal presentations but the conversations that took place throughout the event were just as valuable. Ealing has made an open invitation to other social landlords to visit its sites and see the different stages of its work.
Reassurance for residents should be ongoing
As is to be expected, residents who live in high rise buildings are anxious about the safety of their blocks. Many organisations actively contacted all their residents to allay concerns in the immediate weeks following the Grenfell Tower tragedy, but it's important that this reassurance is ongoing – for example, Croydon has set up face-to-face fire safety drop-ins for residents to come and talk about any concerns they have
Know what you are looking for in a fire risk assessor
This is especially important as anyone can set themselves up as a fire risk assessor – there is no requirement that a ‘qualified’ person does it or for any third party accreditation. According to The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, if you are the ‘responsible person’ for a property you must make sure you carry out a fire risk assessment, although you can appoint a 'competent' risk assessor to do it on your behalf. So what does competency look like in this context? The London Fire Brigade told us that assessors need a sound knowledge of the principles of fire safety, the causes of fire, and the design of fire protection measures, plus an understanding of the way fire behaves and the way people behave in the event of a fire. It’s also important to identify an assessor with extensive experience of the type of building you want them to assess – someone might be an expert on carrying out an assessment in hospitals, for example, but not in residential tower blocks. For more information take a look at the competency criteria prepared by the National Fire Chiefs Council.
Keep your approach under constant review
Fire safety is of course not just about bricks and mortar but about the people living in the building, so your strategy should be a living document – make sure it is continually reviewed. You should already have an action plan based on the recommendations that came from the Lakanal House, Shirley Towers and Derbyshire hoarder inquests. That action plan should be regularly monitored at board and senior management team meetings.
The regulations need more clarity
It is clear that there is a real issue with the definitions and responsibility for fire safety. For example, when it comes to who is responsible for fire safety in buildings in England and Wales, there are two sets of regulations (and therefore two regulatory bodies) – the Building Regulations 2010, which is enforced by building control bodies, and the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, which is enforced by the Fire & Rescue Service. It means that definitions can fall through the gaps between the regulations – for instance, when a building is under construction, the responsibility falls to ‘the person carrying out the work’, but there is no clear definition of that person, and no regulatory requirement for what information needs to be passed over to the ‘responsible person’ once the building is occupied.
Finally, there was an overwhelming sense in the room that things need to change, practices need to improve and communication needs to get better across the board. However, there was a collective will to learn, share and improve to ensure that a tragedy like Grenfell can never happen again.
Debbie Larner is head of practice at the Chartered Institute of Housing.