Independent review calls for new approach to fire safety

04 July 2018

An independent review has called for a new, more robust approach to fire safety which is risk managed from design to occupation and maintenance.

A new regulatory framework is on the cards following the final report of the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety.

While the government is yet to announce which recommendations it will take forward, significant change is expected.

Among the key recommendations put forward by the chair of the review, Dame Judith Hackitt, is a new regulator.

This would be made up of local authority building standards, fire and rescue authorities and the Health and Safety Executive, and would oversee management of safety risks, initially in higher risk residential buildings with ten or more storeys.

In addition, she also calls for these properties to have a clear and identifiable duty holder, both throughout the construction phase but also during occupation and maintenance.

This individual would have responsibility for maintaining the fire and structural safety of the building.

Adopting this more robust regulatory framework requires a collaborative approach.

Steve Exwood, Partner at JLT Specialty, says: “It’s not just a regulatory issue. Improving the fire safety of buildings requires a contribution from every party involved, from the developer to the property landlord and end users. Everyone has to work together to ensure buildings are safe and fit for purpose.”

Fire safety and building design

For those involved in the development of properties, designing buildings that increase fire safety is essential. But this can bring challenges too.

To illustrate this, take the Liverpool Echo Arena car park fire that took place on 31 December 2017 as an example.

Started by an accidental fire in one vehicle, the blaze spread quickly, destroying nearly 1,400 vehicles and becoming one of the worst blazes Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service had seen.

While a particularly devastating fire, the speed at which it took hold is hardly surprising.

A car park filled with vehicles with tanks of highly flammable fuel as well as other combustible materials such as rubber tyres presents a high risk of fire.

It is possible to reduce this through building design. Using concrete adds an element of fire-proofing but incorporating more separation to contain a fire isn’t necessarily practical.

Fitting a sprinkler system is another option, but this adds to the costs and can be difficult to retrofit.

A balance between fire safety, asset protection, costs and operational requirements needs to be achieved.

On top of this, each development project will have its own particular characteristics and risks, making a one-size-fits-all rule impossible.

“Consideration needs to be given to planning for the lifecycle of the building too,” says Exwood.

“If there are subsequent changes to the property use, fire systems and the construction property, what are the ramifications for fire safety? We can’t just ignore fire safety and asset protection once a property is built.”

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Landlord liability

Property owners and landlords also have a key role to play in managing a building’s fire risk. “It is important to understand how a building is constructed and the materials that were used to ensure it provides as much fire protection as possible and that the risks are understood,” says Exwood.

“There will be costs involved with this exercise, especially where improvements need to be made, but the consequences of a fire mean it would be foolhardy to ignore it.”

There are also insurance implications. Under the Insurance Act, there is a duty on the insured to make a fair presentation of the risk to the insurer.

As this includes disclosing ‘every material circumstance, which the insured knows or ought to know’, it’s fair to assume that this should include details of the property’s construction and any fire safety measures that are in place.

Landlords must also ensure that any agreed level of fire safety control is maintained within the property, or risk invalidating their cover.

This can include risk management steps such as keeping fire doors shut and following the right procedures for the disposal of trade waste, but also measures such as turning off power to equipment and carrying out routine maintenance to electrical items.

The size of recent fire losses and the associated human tragedy means that insurers are particularly keen to support good practice around fire risk.

Increasingly they will want to see property surveys and detailed information to support an application.

Working closely with an insurance broker can help. As well as keeping their clients informed about any changes in the regulations, they will be able to offer advice on risk management and help secure the best possible terms.

But while there’s change ahead, and the possibility of additional work and cost, taking a more collaborative approach to addressing fire risk will save lives and have significant benefits for all parties.

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For more information, please contact Steve Exwood, Partner on +44 20 7528 4756 or email steve_exwood@jltgroup.com