Last reviewed 24 March 2021

Mike Sopp reports on important changes relating to competency.

Post-Grenfell, as a result of various review programmes, fire safety legislation and best practice standards are going through significant change.

One particular area of change is in relation to competency within the fire sector — including the competency of those tasked with completing a suitable and sufficient fire risk assessment.

Those responsible for fire safety in their organisation will need to consider these developments to ensure they continue to follow best practice and legislative requirements.

Risk assessment and competency

Fire risk assessing is the cornerstone upon which fire safety legislation is built. Currently, UK fire safety legislation does not require fire risk assessments within a relevant premises to be carried out by a competent person.

However, guidance produced by the Government to assist the responsible person (or the equivalent in Scotland and Northern Ireland) in meeting this obligation notes that if the responsible person feels unable to apply the guidance, then they “should seek expert advice of a competent person” and that “complex premises will probably need to be assessed by a person who has comprehensive training or experience in fire risk assessment”.

Research conducted by the Government with input from the fire safety sector found wide variabilities in the competence of those undertaking fire risk assessments.

To address this, a number of schemes were developed including:

  • fire risk assessor registers managed by several notable fire safety professional institutions

  • third-party certification schemes such as those produced by BAFE SP205 and Warrington Fire.

In addition to the above, in 2010 the Fire Risk Assessment Competency Council (FRACC) was formed with representatives from a wide range of bodies. This Council subsequently produced the competency standard document Competency Criteria for Fire Risk Assessors along with the accompanying A Guide to Choosing a Competent Fire Risk Assessor.

The purpose of the standard was to “provide a basis for consistent evaluation of the competence of fire risk assessors by those professional bodies engaged in registration of competent fire risk assessors, and by third-party certification bodies, who operate certification schemes for fire risk assessors”.

The changing picture

Although primarily aimed at high-rise/risk residential buildings (HRRB), the recommendations contained in the Dame Judith Hackitt report, Building a Safer Future (generated by the independent review of building regulations and fire safety post-Grenfell) means competency throughout the fire safety sector is under consideration.

The Industry Response Group formed to take the report recommendations forward established the Steering Group on Competence for Building a Safer Future (CSG), which itself then set up a number of working groups including the Fire Risk Assessors Working Group (WG4).

The purpose of WG4 was to take forward the blueprint for competency contained in the CSG reports Raising the Bar and Setting the Bar.

Coming under the Fire Sector Federation (which has taken over the function of the FRACC), the aim of WG4 is to “review fire risk assessors and how their practices might be improved”.

In July 2020, the Government published a consultation document in relation to proposals to amend the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (FSO). Among the proposed amendments are:

  • a requirement that any person engaged by the responsible person to undertake all/any part of the fire risk assessment must be competent

  • that the competent person’s name and contact details must be recorded in the fire risk assessment new guidance to support the responsible person in appointing a competent fire risk assessor.

Depending upon the responses to the consultation, amended legislation is expected in 2021 along with revised guidance.

It is worth noting that the Scottish Government is currently reviewing the fire safety regime for Scotland with the potential for similar changes to legislative requirements and guidance.

Competency Code of Practice

November 2020 saw the publication by the Fire Sector Federation (FSF) of Approved Code of Practice. A National Framework for Fire Risk Assessor Competency.

Developed by WG4, the publication is “inclusive of the previous requirements of FRACC and the wider reaching Competency Framework for those working on HRRBs”.

Although the scope is primarily aimed at fire risk assessors undertaking activities in higher-risk buildings, the guiding principles of the Code of Practice can be used for other premises.

Perhaps the key principle of the Code of Practice is that the “competence of fire risk assessors can be assured by either certification of the individual fire risk assessor or through a company providing fire risk assessments under a third party certification scheme accredited by the UK”.

It further states that “the expectation is that the company or professional body will record individuals on its register who are competent to conduct assessments of high risk buildings and who meet the standard of this Code of Practice”.

At this point, it is worth noting that the goal of the fire sector is to ultimately have a national register of competent fire risk assessors accessible to the public containing details of those accredited by third-party certification bodies.

The Code details the “functional requirements” needed by a competent fire risk assessor, which links to the definition given for a competent person, this being “a person, suitably trained and qualified by knowledge and practical experience, and provided with the necessary instructions, to enable the required task(s) to be carried out correctly”.

The Code sets out 32 areas of core knowledge. These reflect those contained in the original FRACC publication but this Code also notes the need for the fire risk assessor to be able to risk assess external wall systems, which will come under the amended FSO.

To accompany the Approved Code of Practice, the FSF has also published a revised version of the FRACC publication A Guide to Choosing a Competent Fire Risk Assessor. It includes a list of current Certification Bodies.

PAS 79 update

In the foreword to the FSF Approved Code of Practice, it is noted that the Government intends to amend the FSO and “require adherence to competency requirements for all risk assessors” and that “these changes will include specification and standards produced by the British Standards Institute. This Code of Practice seeks to offer a foundation for those changes insofar as they impact upon the production of fire risk assessments”.

Late 2020 saw the publication of a revised version of PAS 79, the British Standards Institution Guidance on Fire Risk Assessing Methodology. This publication is the benchmark standard for fire risk assessing that assists in meeting the legal “suitable and sufficient” criteria. Keys changes to the publication include:

  • a change in status from guidance to a Code of Practice (to assist in sustaining a reliable claim of compliance)

  • a two-part approach with Part 2 covering blocks of flats, sheltered housing, extra care housing, supported housing and certain houses in multiple occupation

  • an amendment to the technical content in the light of experience in the use of PAS 79

  • new guidance on the consideration to be given to external wall construction and cladding

  • greater emphasis on competence of fire risk assessors and reference to future competence standards.

Whereas the previous PAS 79:2012 contained full details of the FRACC competency criteria, the revised PAS 79:2020 Fire Risk Assessment. Premises Other Than Housing. Code of Practice makes reference to the Fire Sector Federation Code of Practice.

It states that it is important “users of this PAS make themselves aware of developments in this respect. For fire risk assessors, this is necessary to avoid their FRAs being deemed inadequate, thereby leaving occupants of buildings exposed to risk, and consequent liability for the fire risk assessor in both civil and criminal law”.

However, the PAS also notes that ultimately responsibility for the adequacy of the fire risk assessment rests with the duty holder (eg the responsible person). It contains detailed guidance on how the duty holder can seek assurance as to the adequacy of the fire risk assessment, be it completed by in-house employees or third-party contractors.

It states that the duty holder should “take all reasonable steps to ensure that every fire risk assessor who carries out FRAs on their behalf is competent to carry out this task, regardless of whether the fire risk assessor is an employee of the duty holder or a third party, such as a consultant”.

Conclusion

Ultimate responsibility for the completion of a suitable and sufficient fire risk assessment to meet legal compliance rests with the duty holder (ie the responsible person in England and Wales).

Where the duty holder intends to appoint another person to complete the fire risk assessment on their behalf, the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 will make it a legal requirement to appoint a competent person.

This will apply whether the person is inhouse or an external third-party.

The Fire Sector Federation Approved Code of Practice is seen as the benchmark for competency of fire risk assessors.

If appointing an external third-party, the Fire Sector Federation publication, A Guide to Choosing a Competent Fire Risk Assessor, can be used to assist in meeting due diligence requirements.

The revised PAS 79 Code of Practice is seen as the benchmark for the completion of a suitable and sufficient fire risk assessment. It makes reference to the need to appoint a competent fire risk assessor and the FSF guidance.

Further information

Details and reports from the Industry Response Group/Competence Steering Group work can be found at: Construction Industry Council website.

The following are available from the Fire Sector Federation website:

  • Approved Code of Practice. A National Framework for Fire Risk Assessor Competency

  • Guide to Choosing a Fire Risk Assessor.

The following are available from the British Standards Institution website:

  • PAS 79-1:2020 Fire Risk Assessment. Premises Other Than Housing. Code of Practice

  • PAS 79-2:2020 (draft) Fire Risk Assessment. Housing. Code of Practice