Home Opinion Working Together: Raising Standards in the Fire Safety Sector

Working Together: Raising Standards in the Fire Safety Sector

by Brian Sims
Richard Jenkins: CEO at the NSI

Richard Jenkins: CEO at the NSI

Appointed by BAFE, the independent register of quality fire safety service providers, the National Security Inspectorate (NSI) provides third party certification to companies offering design, installation, commissioning and maintenance services for various fire protection and life safety fire risk assessment services. Here, the NSI’s leader Richard Jenkins offers his response to several articles published in recent editions of The Paper highlighting the findings of the Working Groups set up following Dame Judith Hackitt’s Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety.

The recent publication of the ‘Raising The Bar’ Interim Report by the Competence Steering Group (CSG) following the Hackitt Review of the Grenfell Tower tragedy highlights the overarching need for closer collaboration between Government and industry in the fire safety sector.

With its 50-year history of delivering third party certification, the NSI participated in Installer Working Group 2 (WG2), one of the many such groups reporting into the CSG.

An exemplar of the positive impact third party certification can have is in the security industry which has delivered upwards of a 90% reduction in the rate of false alarms received by the police since 1995. How? By raising alarm installers’ and Alarm Receiving Centres’ standards with National Police Chiefs’ Council aspirations for a reduction in false alarms (themselves a distracting cause of the wasteful deployment of policing resources).

Third party certification in the fire safety sector isn’t a new thing, of course, but it does remain largely voluntary. Leveraging it to raise standards and safety is restricted to ‘believers’. Organisations holding third party certification demonstrate a pre-disposition towards continuous improvement, believe in its benefits in organisational efficiency and also in the quality of the fire safety delivered.

Now is the time for the experience of the security industry to be explained and third party certification to be adopted far more widely within the fire safety space.

Case for certification

At present in England and Wales, under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 legislation, high-risk residential buildings (among others) require a ‘Responsible Person’ (or ‘Duty Holder’) to undertake or commission regular fire risk assessments. Worryingly, these individuals often have no demonstrable fire safety competence and no obligation to defer to qualified experts.

Also, a significant drawback of the requirements, as identified by Dame Judith Hackitt, is the broader risk management issue (including the structural safety of a whole building, which can be neglected), with risk assessments often amounting to ‘tick-box’-style exercises.

Establishing professionalism requires legislation to demand that recognised standards serve as effective benchmarks. In the case of the fire sector, standards in place govern a range of services (for example, the maintenance of fire extinguishers and the installation and management of fire safety systems). Similarly, recognised guidance documents (including those published by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and BAFE’s SP205-1 scheme) dictate a minimum content in the life safety fire risk assessments delivered by approved service providers.

Certificates of Approval are held by all organisations approved by UKAS-accredited third party certification bodies. They provide buyers with a ready means of verifying supplier competence. Calls to improve fire safety will no doubt increase buyer scrutiny of the competencies of fire safety service providers.

There are several aspects buyers and end users should consider as part of their supplier selection process. First of all, the Certificate of Approval held by the service provider should be endorsed with the UKAS hallmark – a ‘tick and crown’. This signifies that the approval is based on thorough, rigorous and regular audit by an independent body itself subject to inspection by UKAS. UKAS’ regular ‘checking of the checker’ signals the approval is robust.

Second, self-assessment-based approvals are light touch. Some Certificates of Approval involve a ‘self-assessment process’. While of some merit, these cannot stand up to a wholly independent ongoing third party certification programme requiring service providers to evidence root cause analysis and corrective actions to any Improvement Notices served during an independent audit.

Third, as always the devil’s in the detail. The competencies required to install a fire alarm system are very different to those for conducting life safety fire risk assessments. The nature of any approval can be readily checked with the issuing third party certification body itself.

Food for thought

The standards and guidance published for fire safety services themselves are of course important, yet service providers operating quality management systems, environmental management and Health and Safety systems may also subject themselves to independent audit.

Working to these standards (eg ISO 9001) plays a critical part in raising the levels of professionalism in the delivery of fire safety.

NSI Gold approval has long advocated the holistic benefit of integrating the assessment of a provider’s management system alongside its technical competency. This has the significant benefit of ensuring management systems are well tuned to the specific nuances of the industry, adding value to the approval.

Most businesses earning such approval for the first time are surprised by the improvements they report in an operational sense from this integrated approach. Also, an ongoing audit compliance programme assures service providers stay ‘on track’ and remain ready to adopt new versions of standards as they’re released.

Roy Wilsher, chair of the National Fire Chiefs’ Council, has urged the Government to progress crucial policy work in the area of fire safety, including a new oversight body for building safety competence.

It’s worth remembering that third party certification is a proven and cost-effective model that has served well where adopted. It wouldn’t claim to be totally fool-proof, being a risk sampling audit approach, but it’s difficult to see how it has been overlooked by Governments for so long now. In the final analysis it isn’t even a burden to the tax payer.

Judgements of what constitutes effecting ‘fire safety competence’ might do well to consider leveraging third party certification infrastructure and have it standing by and ready to assist should Government determine its potential is as relevant in fire safety as it has been for the police service.

Richard Jenkins is Chief Executive of the National Security Inspectorate

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