Last reviewed 10 July 2015

UK fire safety legislation requires employers, where necessary, to provide appropriate fire-fighting measures and to nominate competent persons to implement those measures. Mike Sopp explains the legal obligations.

The use of the phrases “where necessary”, “appropriate” and “competent” implies that employers, when meeting their legal obligations, must consider in a proportionate manner the risks against the measures required to assure the safety of what are known as relevant persons.

The provision and use of fire-fighting measures, particularly portable or non-automatic equipment, will therefore require managers to make decisions based upon the fire risk assessment process.

Legislative background

Premises should be equipped with appropriate fire-fighting equipment, be it automatic (typically fixed systems) or non-automatic (typically fire extinguishers, fire blankets, etc).

Additionally, organisations are required to nominate competent persons to implement the fire-fighting measures identified as being required, particularly where non-automatic measures are utilised.

According to the Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOA), this requirement is included so that fire-fighting is considered “as a possible means of reducing a risk of fire spreading, of providing protection and assistance to others” and “as a possible means of mitigating the detrimental effects of a fire”.

To this end, and to meet legislative requirements, organisations should determine their provision needs, in particular for portable fire-fighting equipment. This could not only prevent loss of life or injury, but also save the UK economy considerable sums of money.

To realise the potential benefits of the provision and use of portable fire-fighting equipment, there are three distinct words or phrases that will drive the decision-making process:

  • “where necessary” in relation to the provision of appropriate fire-fighting measures and nomination of persons to implement them

  • “appropriate” in relation to the type of fire-fighting equipment required

  • “competent” in relation to the persons nominated to implement the fire-fighting measures.

Where necessary and appropriateness

According to the CFOA, the limits of the criteria “where necessary” should be determined by the risk assessment, which in turn, should take into account the features of the premises, the activity carried on there, the nature of the hazard, etc.

The first consideration is, therefore, to decide if they require fire-fighting measures such as in the form of portable equipment. This is about determining what equipment should be provided to protect people or whether such provision is not necessary as it would not protect people and the cost of provision would be disproportionate to the risk.

CFOA guidance states that “the caveat ‘where necessary’ may allow the responsible person to decide that no fire-fighting equipment is necessary in his workplace”.

However, the same document comments that in the vast majority of premises, it will be necessary to “provide adequate fire-fighting equipment”.

This is also reflected in the Government's enforcement guidance document that states: “in practice, it is very unlikely that a properly conducted fire risk assessment, which takes into account all the matters relevant for the safety of persons in case of fire, will conclude that no fire precautions are necessary”.

Similarly PAS 79 Fire Risk Assessment Guidance and a recommended methodology, states that “it is normally appropriate for the premises to be provided with means for occupants to extinguish a fire”.

Some organisations, by the nature of their work activities, may have significant hazards that determine that portable fire-fighting equipment is necessary. This could include:

  • the presence of hazardous and/or dangerous substances that may allow rapid fire spread

  • the presence of persons potentially more vulnerable (eg students, lone workers)

  • structural elements that may allow rapid fire spread (eg extraction systems).

As well as life-safety issues, arguments for provision of portable fire-fighting equipment may include the protection of valuable assets, data and research information as well as business continuity and environmental risks.

Having determined that equipment is necessary, decisions, through the risk assessment, will need to be made as to the “appropriateness” of the equipment. In making decisions, guidance such as in the form of British Standards can be utilised, which will normally be deemed to be the minimum coverage requirement.

If a fire risk assessor were to consider that there was no need for portable fire extinguishers in the laboratory, PAS 79 recommends that there would need to be a full and clear justification for this conclusion in the fire risk assessment.

Similarly, CFOA guidance states that “it will be for the responsible person to present his or her case” if enforcement authorities undertake any inspections and to prove that “to do more would be grossly disproportionate to the benefits of doing more”.

When safe to do so

The nomination of competent persons to implement fire-fighting measures (eg to use fire extinguishers) also takes into account the “where necessary” criteria. The need to have such nominated persons will, according to CFOA guidance, arise “in cases where fire-fighting forms an active part of the preventive and protective measures”.

To put this into context, government guidance suggests that “all staff should be familiar with the location and basic operating procedures for the equipment provided, in case they need to use it”, which may be provided via induction training.

The same guidance then states that if the fire strategy means that certain people (eg fire marshalls) will be expected to take a more active role, “then they should be provided with more comprehensive training”. The employer, therefore, be required to determine:

  • the number of persons required to be nominated

  • their training needs

  • the equipment available to them.

In doing so, the size of, and the specific hazards involved in, the premises concerned should be taken into account along with any evacuation strategies deemed necessary. Clearly, the fire risk assessment will be a key influence on this as a suitable and sufficient assessment will be identifying these aspects.

There are no set ratios for how many staff may require training as this is down to levels of risk. An indication of numbers requiring such training can be found in the Confederation of Fire Protection Association (CFPA) guidelines document “Recommended Numbers of Fire Protection Trained Staff”.

This document provides risk-based guidance for certain types of premises that may be used as a guideline.

Having deemed that nominated persons are necessary, they must be competent, which according to legislation is a combination of training, experience/or knowledge and “other qualities”. What these other qualities are is open to subjective interpretation but may include the ability to:

  • assess a situation quickly, safely and taking the correct action

  • absorb new knowledge and learn new skills

  • cope with stressful and physically demanding emergency procedures

  • leave their normal duties to go immediately and rapidly to an emergency.

The CFOA guidance notes that nominated relevant persons should be able to tackle a fire if it is safe to do so and they know how to do it safely. Inherent, therefore, in any training must be to recognise when first-aid fire-fighting is or is not safe to implement.

Personal safety remains the priority in any situation, and as such, any training provided must ensure that the nominated persons:

  • only use the correct type of extinguisher for the fire situation

  • only use a fire extinguisher when a clear means of escape is available

  • never use fire extinguishers if suffering from any medical conditions.

Further information

PAS 79 Fire Risk Assessment — Guidance and a Recommended Methodology, British Standards Institution.

Collected Perceived Insights into, and Application of, the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 for the Benefit of Enforcing Authorities, Chief Fire Officers Association.

Joint Protocol Portable Fire Extinguishers, Chief Fire Officers Association.

BS 5306-8 Fire Extinguishing Installations and Equipment on Premises. Selection and Positioning of Portable Fire Extinguishers. Code of Practice, British Standards Institution.

Recommended Numbers of Fire Protection Trained Staff, Confederation of Fire Protection Association.