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Fire Risk Assessments, Suitable & Sufficient?
There has been a fundamental regime change in Fire Safety Legislation / Enforcement with a shift in responsibility from the authorities onto the owner/occupier. The basis of fire safety precautions and their acceptability focuses on a building’s Fire Risk Assessment (FRA). However, with the progression of time, knowledge and understanding of these assessments, the quality of some FRA’s is being called into question by the fire authorities, with the terminology used stating that the assessments are ‘not suitable & sufficient’.
An inherent feature of risk assessments is flexibility, whereby all features can be considered by the assessor, ranging from fire safety management to passive fire precautions such as fire compartmentation, with an element of subjectivity given in determination of what meets the ‘benchmark’. The problem with the introduction of flexibility is that it also introduces a level of uncertainty. Rather than strict guidance stating what precautions are necessary, flexibility allows decisions to be made, ensuring a bespoke approach rather than generic blanket solutions that will not fit all scenarios.
The shift in focus creates a problem as the enforcing authorities do just that, ‘enforce’, while building owners / occupiers are required to demonstrate compliance with the regulations. This in turn brings the question of who should undertake the assessment, the answer to which is ‘a competent person’. Much has been written on this subject, therefore the second question of what is ‘suitable & sufficient’ will be discussed. It is however noted that the competence of the assessor and the outcome of the assessment are inextricably linked.
The guidance documents and Fire Safety Order give a level of indication of what should be included within a FRA for it to be considered acceptable. Such items include:
• Details of the general fire precautions required for the premises (e.g. fire alarm system, compartmentation, provision for escape);
• Details of dangerous substances (e.g. compressed cylinders, asbestos, chemicals);
• Recording of the significant findings of the assessment (e.g. deficiencies, areas of specific risk);
• Consideration of persons at special risk (disabled / vulnerable persons, young persons / minors that may be present, etc) and provisions required;
• Details of actions to be undertaken to rectify deficiencies;
• Suggested timescales for the actions to be undertaken;
• Details of the review period.
Whilst the list above provides some details of what is required, it is clear that much work is required to enable an assessor to arrive at satisfactory conclusions. For example, in order to consider persons at special risk, such as disabled persons, a whole range of fire precautions must be assessed, reviewed and analysed to produce an outcome of acceptability and auditable methodology. It is clear that ‘decisions’ must be recorded in some way within the process to ensure the outcome of acceptability can be justified, i.e. the residual risk posed to disabled persons is acceptable due to: the comprehensive means of warning (fire alarm system), fire compartmentation, the evacuation aids provided, disabled refuges sited within each escape stair, compliant travel distances, suitable staff training to enable staff assistance and the disabled communication systems in place. To merely state that the risk is acceptable is not considered suitable and sufficient.
If a risk is present within the building then the comments within the fire risk assessment must be clearly documented as to why judgements have been made and why they are deemed acceptable during the assessors review. The provision and outline of these comments allows a reviewer / enforcing authority to understand what was present during the assessor’s survey – for example a comment of ‘acceptable’ will not indicate to a reviewer that the fire alarm system has been stripped out since the original survey, or the fire extinguishers have been removed i.e. the fire precautions present in the property have been lowered.
When undertaking a FRA (or appointing persons to do so), the Responsible Person must be able to show due diligence. They must be able to demonstrate that the end product, the delivered assessment meets with the legislative requirements. Whilst appointing an external body to undertake such works on their behalf, the Responsible Person must ensure they have employed the services of competent persons. As time passes and an increasing number of assessments filter through to the enforcing authorities, the number of reports being brought into question is increasing. Unfortunately, a key time for FRA’s to be scrutinised in full is post-fire, a time we all know is too late, should the standards not be met.
Lawrence Webster Forrest have undertaken FRA’s in almost every sector in line with Fire Precautions Legislation, with great success for a number of years. We have also undertaken peer reviews, desktop and site studies of assessments to provide clients with additional feedback on existing FRA’s.
With the passage of time, it is important for those responsible for FRA’s to ensure they are periodically reviewed and remain valid. If there is any level of doubt, a re-assessment / appraisal of the modified risks should be undertaken and reported on accordingly.
If you would like to know more – or would like to arrange an appointment with one of our senior fire safety advisers – simply call Peter Gyere on 020 8668 8663.