Fire Safety Reform Order – it’s your responsibility

The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order, or RR(FS)O, will come into force on 1 October this year, and is going to impact on every non-domestic premises in England and Wales. Here, Paul Bryant, CEO of Kingfell Plc one of the country’s leading fire safety consultancies, gives an expert’s overview on the impact the new legislation is going to have, and what it means to the building services engineer.
Current fire safety legislation has developed over the years in what can only be accurately described as a rather piecemeal or haphazard fashion, often in the aftermath of a major incident. The result is that references to fire safety, and fire safety guidance, are scattered throughout a number of pieces of legislation.

The current position is that most large business premises are required to meet with the requirements of the Fire Precautions Act or the Fire Precautions (Workplace) Regulations. The Fire Precautions Act focuses on measures to ensure that occupants can evacuate the premises safely in the event of a fire, and is generally based around inspection and certification by the local authority fire service – the ubiquitous Fire Certificate. The Fire Precautions (Workplace) Regulations, which additionally apply to smaller business premises, place a responsibility on an employer to make an assessment of the risk posed by fire, and take reasonable precautions.

The aim of the Reform Order, according to the Department for Communities and Local Government – which took over responsibility for the Order following the recent demise of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister – is to replace this situation in October with a single piece of fire safety legislation. One that can be better understood and administered by businesses and those responsible for enforcing the Order.

A new approach

The main implications of the Order are that there will be no more routine inspections by the local fire brigade, although there may still be programmed inspections by the fire service to sample premises. There will be no more Fire Certificates issued by the fire service; fire safety will be ascertained on a risk assessment based approach; the emphasis will be on fire prevention and mitigation; there will be a greater focus on increased compliance; and insistence on the proper maintenance of fire protection procedures and fire safety equipment.

So, from 1 October, the building occupier or owner becomes legally responsible for fire safety, and he or she will be accountable for the carrying out of fire risk assessments.

Failure to satisfy the RR(FS)O’s requirements may well invalidate a business’s insurance cover, and the implications of injury or death in circumstances of non-compliance are severe, and are obviously to be avoided at all cost. Under the RR(FS)O, the local fire authority has the right to enter your premises at any time to carry out an inspection. It can demand to see a written fire risk assessment, written procedures and equipment and systems maintenance documentation.

Significantly, the fire authority will be able to do this from the commencement date of the Order, as the RR(FS)O does not provide employers, occupiers or the designated ‘responsible’ person – who might well be the person responsible for building services – with any period of grace to produce the fire risk assessment, as one is already required under the Fire Precautions (Workplace) Regulations. This lack of a period of grace also applies to other documentation and safety measures. Compliance must therefore be immediate!

To undertake the fire risk assessments called for in the RR(FS)O, a ‘responsible’ person should be ‘competent’ to identify risks that can be removed or reduced, and to decide the nature and extent of the fire precautions that need to be implemented to protect people against any remaining fire risks. The RR(FS)O is also insistent that one or more ‘competent’ people be appointed to assist the ‘responsible’ person.

‘Competent’ has, at last, been defined in the first of a series of Guidance Notes that are being prepared to accompany the Reform Order. In these Notes, it defines a ‘competent person’ as being: “A person with enough training, experience or knowledge and other qualities (although it does not specify what these qualities are) to enable them to properly assist in undertaking the preventive and protective measures”. If that seems a little vague, consider the Guidance Note’s definition of ‘responsible’. It states that a responsible person is: “The person ultimately responsible for the fire safety as defined in the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005”!

Who is the responsible person?

Putting it rather bluntly, in all probability from 1 October, you! As the person accountable for building services, you may well be identified by the board of directors as the responsible person. If so, you will be legally accountable for carrying out fire risk assessments, which must focus on the safety of all ‘relevant persons’ in the event of a fire. You are obliged to pay particular attention to people at special risk, such as the disabled (and that is not limited to just those colleagues and visitors who are wheelchair-bound) and those with any special needs. You must also take into account any dangerous substances that are likely to be on the premises, either temporarily (perhaps during construction) or permanently.

Guidance notes

But why, you may be asking, are the Guidance Notes so important? The answer is because the Order shifts the responsibility for fire safety firmly onto the shoulders of businesses and building occupiers. It also heralds in an approach to fire safety that is based on fire engineering principles rather than prescriptive standards or measures.

At the time of writing, the Building Research Establishment, which has been charged with producing a series of Guidance Notes, has produced eight of the eleven promised Notes. These cover: offices and shops; factories and warehouses; sleeping accommodation; residential care premises; educational premises; small and medium places of assembly; large places of assembly; theatres and cinemas. By the time this edition of BSEE goes to press, the remaining three may also be available. These address: transport premises and facilities; healthcare premises; and outdoor events.

The safe solution

As a fire safety consultant, you might expect me to recommend that you seek professional assistance from a fire engineer that has a detailed understanding of the Reform Order, an expert understanding of fire safety standards, and an intimate knowledge of BS 7974:2001: the application of fire safety engineering principles to the design of buildings. In that respect, I will not disappoint you.

Interpretations of the Order are going to differ; some insurers or brigades might even attempt to interpret the Guidance Notes as being prescriptive. Disputes are going to arise and, when they do, their resolution is going to rely on the experience and knowledge of whomever you have decided is competent to advise you on fire safety. Ultimately, of course, many of the terms and provisions of the Order are going to be defined in Court, and that is no place to start regretting not seeking expert help.

At a seminar in London organised by Kingfell to address the Reform Order challenges, Sir Ken Knight, Commissioner for the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, stressed the importance of seeing the fire risk assessment as being about the fire safety management and the maintenance of a safe working environment. I will leave the last words on the Reform Order to him: “Every premises is unique in fire safety terms, even when they are considered by the company’s management as being identical branches or identical outlets. And it is vital that fire risk assessments are seen as being an ongoing dynamic activity.”

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