Fire risk assessments - what is really going on out there and should we be worried?
on 27 September, 2013

Fire strategist Paul Bryant points out some worrying trends regarding the interpretation of fire risk assessment legislation in the UK.

About three years ago and with the help of colleagues in the fire industry, I wrote a document covering fire risk assessments for complex buildings. This was as a result of a meeting with a fire authority where they suggested that there needed to be guidance to provide a framework to cover the peculiarities and complexity of the likely fire safety and protection provisions.

There is already plenty of excellent information available in the form of government guides, British Standard PAS 79, specialist sector guides, etc. The document, Kingfell Code KF913, was produced as a pdf document and attracted many hundreds of downloads. A second edition was published with Amazon in June 2013, in paperback and kindle format.

After a number of sales, it was noted that the Amazon site attracted its first UK comment for the book. The comment stated that the book was “not worth the paper it was printed on”. Obviously, a depressing start to a literary career, especially as the first edition was generally well received. However, after a two-day exile to the pub, I looked at the comment again, this time from an objective viewpoint. I came to two conclusions:

· The commenter implied that the guidance was not sufficient to allow a “responsible person” to undertake fire risk assessments on their own, and that they should use (fire safety) professionals instead. The guidance in fact highlights that such risk assessments should be undertaken by appropriately competent and experienced persons. Can it be concluded that some of our most complex environments (hospitals, heritage buildings power stations, etc.) are being assessed by non-experienced persons armed with “how to do it” manuals?

· The commenter went on to point out that they were in enforcement. This could therefore suggest that there are those in a regulatory role who entertain the idea that responsible persons, potentially with no prior experience, may undertake fire risk assessments for more complex environments.”

The very thought of this made the few remaining hairs on my head stand up. Does the United Kingdom have a bigger problem with the processing of its fire safety legislation than first suspected?

Soon after the introduction of the RR(FS)O, I undertook a rough evaluation of the size of the UK fire risk assessment market. With the help of my Kingfell colleagues, I used a rough square foot value that we used to price up risk assessments. For example, a 5,000 sq ft office building, multiplied by X pence would give an indication of the price for the undertaking and report writing of that building. By approximating the number and average size of buildings subject to the RR(FS)O, a crude but useful figure was derived.

If we assumed that all of these buildings will be assessed at least once per year, then a figure putting the annual FRA market at £3.4bn was reached. Time for assessors to start ordering their Ferrari catalogues!

From experience to date though, there is very little evidence of the multi-millionaire fire risk assessor. Instead we are all out there bidding for work and using price as the key determinant in winning that work, even those accredited by third party schemes. All of this benefits the client and, at the same time, reduces the credibility of fire safety professionals in the eyes of others. The spiral of ever reducing pricing is harming the fire industry and at the end, there will be no winners.

The harsh competitive nature of the risk assessment market is one thing, but does not the conclusions made earlier point to something even more damaging to the success of UK fire safety legislation? I believe that we can picture the operational fire risk assessment model with the use of a pyramid hierarchy as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Fire risk assessment operational pyramid

Segment 1 represents the high-end fire risk assessment market. This segment will be dominated by professional fire risk assessment organizations, many of whom will have third-party certification. The clients using this segment are likely to be knowledgeable of the risks and will value the output of fire risk assessors. The fees paid would likely be higher than the average but will be held back by the commercial pressures deriving from Segments 2, 3 and 4.

Segment 2 represents the skilled fire risk assessment market. Most in this segment will be competent assessors but may not be held back by large organization overheads or accreditations. Consequently, they may be able to offer very keen rates when compared to those in Segment 1. Clients using assessors from this segment are likely to adopt a good fire safety management regime but will be forced to look at more cost effective options.

Segment 3 is where, I believe, a large proportion of the third party risk assessment model sits. Price will be a key determinant and this will attract assessors with perhaps more limited knowledge of fire safety and protection but may have a background in fire and safety. For many smaller buildings that may contain simple hazards, this may be an adequate solution and may meet the key bones of the legislation. While there are assessors who are willing to undertake assessments for pin money, this segment will continue to thrive.

Segment 4 covers everything from unskilled assessments and do-it-yourself assessments to no assessments at all. I believe that currently this is by far the largest sector.

The above diagram is more a hypotheses than one based on fact, but I believe that it is not a million miles away from the true situation where we currently find ourselves. Hopefully those who assess complex buildings will be predominantly in Segment 1 or 2. However, my earlier conclusion may deduce that you will find assessments for complex buildings in Segments 3 and 4.

Now if we take the idea that the market is worth £3.4bn and apply this to the total area shown in the pyramid, this would suggest that well over 50% of that market will produce “unsuitable and insufficient” fire risk assessments. We could also conclude that the professional risk assessment market is a very small percentage of the true value of the market.

So what can be done to improve this? I think the objective of the fire industry is to turn the pyramid on its head, more so to reduce the Segment 4 market to one that is very small.  By doing this, professionalism and proper rates will gradually be re-introduced.

How can this be achieved? Well the use of high-profile litigation for risk assessments that are not suitable and sufficient will help, but this needs to be brought to the mainstream more so than it is. Currently the fire industry are aware of the prosecutions, but how many outside the industry are? Perhaps an investigative journalism TV documentary would help here, but what would worry me is that it may also damage the professional fire industry perception, given that we will be seen as those who cannot control their own industry. There is certainly no easy remedy.

If you have any views on this, please add them below or send them to me through the linkedin “Kingfell” company page.

Kingfell Guide KF913 – Fire risk assessments for complex buildings, is available via Amazon.

  • Operation Florian

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