In May 2018, shortly before the publication of Dame Judith Hackitt’s review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety, I wrote an article “Fire Risk Assessors-Time to Come Together As One?” The article was written due to my concern that fire risk assessors as a group did not appear to me to have a consistent representative voice in relation to the issues of competency and accreditation, issues which were later confirmed as findings and recommendations in the final Hackitt report.

The final report detailed how the regulatory system covering high-rise and complex buildings was not fit for purpose. Chapter 5 specifically dealt with competence. Whilst I accept that the remit of the review was limited to high rise and complex buildings, I believe it would be a blatant missed opportunity if the issues of competence, regulation and accreditation were not discussed and considered in the wider context of all buildings.

Nevertheless, the report recommended (5.2) that “The professional and accreditation bodies working within the construction and fire safety sectors should continue the work started in response to the interim report and present a coherent proposal to government within one year. As a minimum, this proposal should cover the role and remit of an overarching body to provide oversight of competence requirements and support the delivery of competent people working on HRRBs…

Following the recommendations contained in the report, the Fire Safety Bill has now become the Fire Safety Act 2021 and the Building Safety Bill has now had its second reading in Parliament. It is anticipated that the second tranche of amendments to the Fire Safety Order will come via the Building Safety Bill which is anticipated to be enacted in 2023.

In relation to the risk assessment process, the amendments will include requirements that:

• where the Responsible Person (RP) appoints a person to make or review the fire risk assessment, they must be competent.

• all RPs must record their completed fire risk assessment.

• for all regulated premises in England and Wales, RPs must record the name of the individual, and organisation of persons engaged by them to undertake any or all of the fire risk assessment.

Within the government response to the fire safety consultation it is interesting to read that

In the first instance, itis proposed that the new building safety regime applies to high-rise residential buildings of 18 metres and above or more than six storeys (whichever is reached first).” 

The use of the phrase “in the first instance” suggests to me that similar principles will be applied across the board once the necessary political reaction to the Grenfell disaster has been rolled out.

As in 2018, I still see no evidence or likelihood of the professional bodies who presently accredit and ‘represent’ fire risk assessors coming together to take matters forward. The present accreditation schemes have up to a thousand accredited assessors on their registers. But these numbers are divided between 4 or 5 schemes so that no individual register has sufficient critical mass to lead the way.

In addition, there still appear to be historic disagreements, ideologies and personality clashes which are preventing any sensible discussion as to the way forward. I cannot see that there is one professional body responsible for looking after the sole interests of fire risk assessors, whether accredited or qualified through experience as fire safety officers or as a result of industry training.

There are presently numerous associations, institutes and consortiums such as the IFE, IFSM, FPA Warrington, IFPO, IFA, FIA, BFC (I could go on) with an interest in taking this forward. Do we really need another Institute for Fire Risk Assessors? But as individual bodies who might independently represent hundreds of fire risk assessors, they separately have no voice. Bring together the accredited FRAs, the very people the government will hold out as examples to the rest, then their one voice becomes stronger, both in an advisory capacity and from a negotiating point of view.

If I was a fire risk assessor I would be asking what my representative association, institution or consortium was doing for me now, and more importantly, what it will do for me in the future.

In my experience, the appetite of fire and rescue services to pursue enforcement against fire risk assessors and fire risk assessment companies has not abated. If anything, (if my inbox is anything to go by), it has increased.

In my humble opinion, reputable fire risk assessors continue to be underpaid for the value they bring to the process of making people safe, and they are also largely unprotected from potential culpability under the Fire Safety Order.

There is no definition or case law to assist us with defining what a “suitable and sufficient” fire risk assessment looks like. I am aware of the PAS 79 guidance, but that does not deal with the extent of the risk assessor’s retainer; the extent to which sampling is acceptable; the FRA’s position when the RP does not provide full information or access in relation to the premises; but most importantly, the degree to which the “opinion” of the FRA in determining risk can be justified, when challenged by a fire officer with a different assessment of risk.

It seems to me, quite simply, that if a fire enforcement officer takes a different view in respect of risk in relation to the premises then the fire risk assessor is vulnerable, not only to criticism, but also to enforcement action, prosecution and ultimately, a prison sentence.

It is in these situations that I would expect the FRA’s representative institution to step in and provide assistance and support. When a police officer’s conduct is challenged, the Police Federation is there to support the officer throughout the whole process of investigation and representation.

A union acts in the same way to protect employees.

But my experience is that fire risk assessors are left unsupported, and have to navigate the enforcement, and often the prosecution process, alone – against the court, and a respected fire service/enforcing authority. The best they can do is to seek out expert opinion to support them, but this is rarely enough to persuade the court that the fire officer may be wrong.

Hypocrisy! – I hear you cry -you have prosecuted fire risk assessors yourself!

Indeed I have, and I make no excuse for it. But I am concerned that the emphasis may now  shift from prosecuting “the Cowboys” (I have no qualms with that), to questioning the work of experienced and appropriately qualified and accredited fire risk assessors, who have merely reached different conclusions than fire enforcement officers in relation to risk.

There now appears to be a demand for the perfect assessment, and anything less is considered criminal.

My point is this, as it was in May 2018, if we start going after the people who are genuinely try to make us safe – who will be willing to make us safer in the future?

For this reason, it is essential that fire risk assessors stand as one and have their voice heard when the government comes to decide what “competency” looks like, and thereafter, when their competency might be challenged.

Will the Institutions, Associations, Federations and Consortiums stand together with their members or will they fear for their reputation and distance themselves from any potential negativity?

In my view, the time has come for these organisations to come together to properly represent fire risk assessors and take part in the consultation process as one body and then in the implementation of those recommendations which have been deemed necessary and which require fire industry expertise and experience. Otherwise, regulation will be imposed from those outside the industry.

The government would surely prefer to work with an industry which agrees with the regulations to be imposed? It will have to listen if this particular sector speaks as one voice.

For a full discussion on the points raised above, join the FSM Webinar on Friday 11th March at 10am.

Click here to book your place.