26 Jun 2023

Managing fire safety risks: How to make sure you’ve got the right competencies and resident engagement strategies

As the new building safety regime continues to unfold, Andy Frankum and Jan Taranczuk from the National Social Housing Fire Strategy Group write about the steps you need to be taking to make sure you are effectively managing and mitigating fire safety risks.

Since the Lakanal House fire in 2009, we now know a lot more about the causes of fires in domestic homes. It is now clear that most fires start in kitchens, most deaths occur in the living room or the bedroom, and that most deaths do not actually occur in high rise flats.

We also know that older people are more likely to die in a fire, which poses further challenges. The Centre for Ageing Better states that there are over 11 million people in the UK aged 65, and in ten years, this will have increased to 13 million people, 22 per cent of the population. The fire-related fatality rate per million is higher for older people, as well as for men, as the graphic below shows. This means that while fire-related deaths have plateaued in recent years, we may see future increases as the population grows older.

fire related fatality rate per million population graphic

Risk and competency

The emerging building safety regime and our ageing population necessitates several changes to fire safety practice, only two of which we’ll touch on here.

Understanding and addressing risk is vital, and the risk of fire nationally is not necessarily the same as your risk. Fire statistics for 2021/22 show that:

  • There were 7,335 fires in blocks of flats
  • Nearly two thirds (4,645) were in low rise buildings (defined in the statistics as 1-3 storeys)
  • 26 per cent (1,907) were in medium rise buildings (defined as 4-9 stories)
  • Just over 10 per cent (783) were in high rise buildings (10 storeys or more)

High rise is of course important due to the potential for multiple fatalities, but this data shows we must also address the prevalence and risk of fire in low rise buildings.

This brings us onto one of the key requirements for mitigating risk – competency. Competency is not the same as training, and we should think of it as a series of knowledge, abilities, skills, experiences and behaviours which leads to effective performance. Competence needs to be understood as both individual and organisational.

What questions should you be asking? At minimum, you should be thinking about the following.

  • Do you have a performance management framework that assesses performance of staff?
  • Are you mapping competencies on job functions/roles to ensure fire safety requirements are met?
  • Are you using competent contractors to complete works?
  • Do you have processes to ensure compartmentation is not breached?
  • Do you do regular checks on fire equipment?

Asking the right questions is essential, as is not making assumptions as to the answers, learning lessons where you can, and putting things right when you identify that it’s needed.

Resident engagement strategies

Beyond landlords, everyone has a role to play in fire safety. It is not just the remit or concern of fire safety or compliance teams. Management staff, contractors, and residents also have an important role in understanding how and where fires can start, and who is most at risk.

The sharing and understanding of this should be central to resident engagement strategies. When applying for Building Assessment Certificates, applications must include both the Safety Case Report and the Resident Engagement Strategy. Section 91 of the Building Safety Act explains that this strategy should define:

  • The information that will be provided to relevant persons about decisions relating to the management of the building
  • The aspects of those decisions that relevant persons will be consulted about
  • The arrangements for obtaining and taking account of the views of relevant persons
  • How the appropriateness of methods for promoting participation will be measured and kept under review.

A new article in the Fire Safety Order, 21A, will also ensure that Responsible Persons must give residents comprehensible and relevant information about relevant fire safety matters that should include the risks identified in the Fire Risk Assessment, and the remedial action proposed.

Agencies and other people who visit residents at home also need to be included within fire safety strategies. This includes social care services, community health practitioners, and anyone else who might happen to step over the threshold of a resident’s home for one reason or another.

The overall aim is not just to be compliant with legislation, but to cultivate and create a fire safety culture among residents, staff, and everyone else involved in the sector, however tangentially. Everyone must play their part. We can’t change the past, but we can take actions to change the future.

About the authors

Andy Frankum is Chair of the National Social Housing Fire Strategy Group.

Jan Taranczuk CIHCM AIFSM OHP is Vice-Chair of the London / South East Region of National Social Housing Fire Strategy Group.