Rewriting the rulebook on fire responsibilities

SCA’s Ian Doncaster discusses the impact the government’s consultation on fire safety may have on the industry

Led by Dame Judith Hackitt, the independent review of building regulations and fire safety, carried out in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire, has focused attention on the way high-rise residential buildings are designed, built and managed. Plans are now being put in place to rewrite the rulebook on building safety, offering clearer guidance on accountability for those responsible for the construction and management of such buildings.

Responsibility for building safety during the design and build stages will now sit with five ‘dutyholders’ – the client, principal designer, principal contractor, designer and contractor. These dutyholders must ensure that Building Regulations are met and must prove that they are managing risks at established gateway points before they can continue with other phases of the build.

A long-term campaigner for competency improvements in fire safety, the Smoke Control Association (SCA) has a particular interest in ‘Gateway one’. This states that, before planning permission can be given, the dutyholder will need to submit a ‘fire statement’ and the regulator will consult the Fire and Rescue Authority to make sure fire safety is considered at an early stage.

The SCA has previously argued that smoke ventilation systems should be designed into a building and not added at a later date. By compelling dutyholders to consider fire safety from the outset, there is a clear opportunity for them to engage with a smoke-ventilation specialist on the most suitable life-safety systems, ensuring the correct design and installation of smoke-control systems and reducing the risk of critical failure.

Responsibility for smoke-control design, installation and maintenance shouldn’t be left to someone who has little more than a basic understanding of its complexities – a scenario that has become all too common, unfortunately.

As an example, a competent fire engineer, widely regarded as an expert in his/her individual field, may not have the necessary expertise to take sole responsibility for the design of the smoke-ventilation system – just as a facilities manager is not typically an expert in checking on the condition of a life-safety system in a high-rise building.

The dutyholder and gateway methodology will help to maintain the ‘golden thread’ and prevent commercial imperatives from overriding safety considerations. Broadening the scope to include buildings higher than 18m, meanwhile, is a welcome step in recognising that safety provisions must be upheld in tall buildings that are not regarded as high-rise.

Included in the government’s reform proposal is the suggestion that someone will remain responsible for managing and minimising fire risks throughout the life-cycle of the building. BS EN 12101, BS 9991 and BS 9999 document maintenance requirements, for both natural and powered smoke-control systems, advise that life-critical equipment should be included in a building services maintenance schedule.

The SCA supports this approach, and the responsible person should be aware of these requirements when developing a schedule to maintain equipment on an ongoing basis.

“The dutyholder and gateway methodology will prevent commercial imperatives overriding safety ones.”

As part of a sustained campaign to improve competency, all SCA members who install smoke-control systems are now required to apply for, and receive, accreditation to a specialist third-party competence scheme for smoke-control systems, such as the IFC SDI 19 scheme.

Certification guarantees that the company employs staff who are suitably skilled and experienced in fire-strategy verification, system design, installation and commissioning. Accredited contractors will have demonstrated that their trained staff adhere to industry best practice, fully appreciate the importance of appropriate installation, inspection and maintenance procedures, and have the correct infrastructure to support this.

The introduction of a new building safety regulator should also ensure that existing and new building safety requirements are enforced properly, and that the industry fully embraces the high standards of competence that should apply whenever life-safety systems are being considered in high-rise residential buildings.

The proposal to give the regulator powers to take action against transgressors – with new criminal offences and monetary penalties – is fundamental to forcing change and holding people to account. Currently, developers and contractors feel no pain if they ignore safety standards in a race to the bottom on price. As long as the regulator maintains an independent stance and has the authority to take strong and timely action against those who wilfully overlook regulations, the SCA is optimistic that the industry will back the new regime and meet the minimum requirements laid out in the restructured Building Regulations.

Toughening up national regulation of construction products with a complaints system and a stronger focus on enforcement has been a long time coming. Manufacturers with fully certified products have been let down by a lack of enforcement since the construction products regulations were introduced. This is an opportunity to clarify and rectify the situation.

Overall, the most important outcome should be a change of behaviour and culture in the construction industry, such that stakeholders in the safety of buildings comply with their responsibilities.

Smoke-control systems advice note from government

In February, the government issued an Advice Notice to building owners on smoke-control systems. It recommended reviewing the use of electromagnetic holding devices for vents, which could fail in a fire because of power loss or because their magnetic fields are weakened by rising temperatures in, and around, the smoke shaft. Consideration should be given to replacing them with ‘a more robust form of vent acctuator’. Manual override controls for automatic smoke-control systems should also be reviewed, to ensure they function effectively and can be identified by firefighters.

If any element of a building’s smoke-control system is found to be defective, it should be repaired immediately. If this is not possible, a risk assessment should be carried out and – after consulting a qualified fire engineer – mitigation measures put in place. These should be communicated to the local fire and rescue service and remain in place until the smoke-control system has been repaired and tested.

Issues with compartmentation should also be looked at, as defects that were low priority to remedy while there was a functioning smoke-control system may now be urgent.

Professional advice on smoke control should be obtained from a qualified engineer, who will normally be chartered and registered with the Institution of Fire Engineers, but may come from another built environment profession. See the new CIBSE Guide E chapter on smoke control for more information.