Fire safety has been in the news a lot recently and there could be many changes to fire safety policy to come over future months. In the meantime, Alan Field looks at some of the routine checks and procedures that should always be done by those responsible for fire safety, irrespective of policy changes to come.

It is too early to speculate what changes, whether minor or major, to fire safety requirements will flow from the Grenfell Tower tragedy. However, it serves as a timely reminder to all facilities management professionals and those responsible for health and safety, that the routines relating to fire safety are as important as ever. This article looks at the more basic issues of ensuring fire safety routines are understood and followed correctly, and at the importance of risk assessment.

Division of responsibilities

The facilities manager (FM) should always be clear what, if any, are his or her responsibilities for fire safety at a particular site. This sounds obvious. Yet the complexity manifests itself where there is, say, a multi-tenanted office building or where there are multiple parties involved with managing different aspects of such a building or estate.

Ideally, the contract between the various parties needs to be clear on all aspects of fire safety. Sometimes the contract will require the in-house manager to be involved with fire risk assessments — sometimes he or she may only be involved with, say, managing the subcontractor who tests fire alarms. There should never be any ambiguity as to who is responsible for any fire safety routine and this needs to be escalated to senior management if ambiguity does arise.

Where the landlord or their representatives undertake fire risk assessments, the fire safety manager should aim to be consulted both at the time and with ongoing reviews. Different parties conducting their own fire risk assessments without sharing them with one another is rarely, if ever, a wise thing to do. This is especially true where the in-house manager is managing a number of hard and soft services contractors whose processes — and their risks — may not be immediately apparent to the other parties such as landlords.

In any event, health and safety-related matters should always be reported to those responsible for risk assessments and senior management should ensure there is an agreed mechanism for this to be done on a continuing basis. Effective records need to be kept of all safety-related communications to other parties to avoid disputes at a later date of who told whom what and when.

The FM or health and safety manager will normally have contractual and other rights to ensure that their subcontractors follow an agreed approach to fire safety and, in some buildings, this may include formal “permit to work” arrangements for certain activities. These need to be fully understood and changes of staff within any party may need re-briefing.

Sometimes multi-tenanted buildings can present difficulties. Often the tenants will need to agree with their landlord, as a part of the service agreement, to follow certain health and safety requirements. Typically, these include life safety protocols, eg evacuating the building when the fire alarm is actuated and/or through other methods of safety communication, eg public address announcements. Often, there will be a health and safety committee — chaired by an FM or landlord representative — where each of the tenants send safety representatives to share information with the committee. The usual aim is to achieve a consistent response to emergencies. Sometimes these arrangements are not always quite so clear-cut and there can be particular issues with “business centre” type operations where there may be many individual occupants, often with licences — rather than tenancies — which are sometimes short term.

This can be especially critical because compliance to the original licence arrangements may not always be followed with short-term users, eg where a small office suite is used instead to keep trade stock there (which might present a greater fire risk). This is just one example. Fire risk assessments are often based on an element of assumption and tenants or licensees not complying with their agreements could increase the expected level of fire risk or delays in evacuation. So, the manager should ensure that there really is a fully agreed approach with the landlord concerning enforcing — as well as educating — a fire safety strategy.

Same old routine?

The basic routines which relate to fire safety should always be followed and on time. This sounds obvious but, in the author’s experience, matters such as quarterly inspections of fire detection system can be allowed to slip a little and, sometimes, preventive maintenance routines of heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems are not necessarily followed through. This can sometimes be compounded by incorrect assumptions about the extent to which the HVAC was designed to be part of the fire protection system of the building; where it is, this is typically through smoke extraction. Where operations and maintenance (O and M) manuals cannot be found or seem incomplete then the manufacturer needs to be contacted. This can apply to HVAC and other complex building systems and is most common where the contractor has changed a number of times.

In short, where contractors do not keep agreed routine dates then this needs to be escalated through their management chain. Where O and M manuals are not available then these need to be created again — assumptions about HVACs and other kit within a building should not be made.

This is simply because one potential limitation of all fire risk assessments is that they are typically based on the assumption that all fire protection systems within a building — both passive and active — are working optimally. This is why the fire safety manager needs to understand how these systems interact with one another in terms of total fire protection of the building. It also means that maintenance regimes need to be followed to meet these assumptions. So, contractors need to be chased, if necessary, to meet due inspection/maintenance dates for such equipment.

Fire drills and fire alarm testing should always be on an agreed schedule. The landlord’s decision on frequency should be based on the life safety considerations within the building which are normally determined as part of the fire risk assessment. This can change along with operational circumstances within a building and should be monitored for ongoing adequacy. The same rule applies to safety signage — is it still up to date and relevant? Ideally, after each fire evacuation drill there should be a review of any feedback from participants — did they understand the signage or was any confusion discerned?

With multi-tenanted buildings — especially where some tenants operate some element of shift working or hot desking — ensuring all occupants can take part in a regular evacuation drill can be difficult to achieve. One solution to help address this issue is to have effective training of all fire marshals but, again, both the landlord and individual tenants need to ensure that this remains an effective system.

Conclusion

Fire safety could go through a number of changes in the near future — be this due to changes in Building Regulations, Brexit or other factors. However, the basics will always be important — checking fire risk assessments, making sure that maintenance of fire detection and fire suppression systems are kept up to date and ensuring fire drills are regularly delivered.

Recent events have reinforced the importance of understanding fire safety and giving safety routines high priority. Good housekeeping can also ensure that assumptions made during the fire risk assessment process are fully supported and seen through properly.

Last reviewed 4 August 2017