Fire safety legislation and refurbishment

Catherine Nelms, of the Fire Industry Association, explains why fire safety legislation must be adhered to through any planning or refurbishment process

Let’s take stock for one moment and sort out the mess of confusion that surrounds fire safety legislation and what it actually says. It is absolutely vital that everyone fully understands what the law says and what that actually means for buildings across the country, and for the people that own and manage these buildings.

In the UK, there are various fire safety laws that vary slightly depending on location, but they all ostensibly say the same thing. For the sake of accuracy and preventing any confusion, here is the full list: Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 – applicable in England and Wales; Fire (Scotland) Act 2005; Fire Safety (Scotland) Regulations 2006; The Fire and Rescue Services (Northern Ireland) Order 2006; and The Fire Safety Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2010.

Fire safety legislation applies to all non-domestic properties such as businesses, shops, schools, hospitals, church buildings, festival halls, and leisure centres, for example. But it can also apply to housing associations, landlords, student halls of residence, and care homes. This is not an exhaustive list but it gives an idea of the scale of the need for everyone to understand, apply, and comply with fire safety regulations.

Each piece of legislation refers to either a ‘duty holder’, ‘appropriate person’ or a ‘responsible person’ but they mean the same thing. This is the person who will be held liable if there are any failings in the fire safety of the building, and the person who ultimately makes the decisions about the requirements for the building. This could be the employer of a business, or a landlord, or the appropriate body responsible for managing a house of multiple occupation (HMO).

All of these pieces of legislation are freely available to download and read from the website at the stroke of a keyboard – simply search the relevant piece of legislation. This article couldn’t possibly cover the full breadth of the legislation in one go, so reading through the legislation is recommended. The Fire Industry Association also has a number of resources available to help break down the legislation available on the association’s website.

Take action
First and foremost, the legislation – regardless of which country you’re in – imposes on the responsible person (or appropriate person/duty holder) an obligation to ensure that general fire precautions are in place to ensure the safety of any of his/her employees, or of any other relevant persons who may be on the premises.

This means that a fire risk assessment must be carried out to identify and evaluate the hazards and risks within the building. The key word here is ‘evaluate’ – because every aspect of the building (including the people within) must be thoroughly considered and analysed. Following that detailed analysis, recommendations for improving the safety of the building must be made, based on the hazards and risks that the fire risk assessment identified. The important thing here is to act on these recommendations. Make the necessary changes as soon as possible; failure to act could be seen as a breach of the law.

It is also vital to note that a fire risk assessment is not a ‘once and done’ document – it must be reviewed regularly and kept up to date. Alongside these periodic reviews, the fire risk assessment must also be reviewed whenever any construction or renovation project is planned – and throughout the life of the renovation project (especially since plans can change).

Knowing when the legislation applies
Knowing and understanding what fire safety legislation means for businesses and the public can get complicated. However, it is vital to understand and comply with fire safety legislation as it is in place not only for the safety of everyone within the building, but also for the security of the business. Falling foul of fire safety legislation can mean thousands of pounds in fines that could have been avoided if the correct steps were taken. At worst, failure to comply with legislation may lead to an actual fire that could devastate not only the building, but the lives of those inside.

The key thing to remember here is that fire safety legislation must be complied with at all times. This means considering the legislation at the beginning of a construction project, during any maintenance work or alterations to the building, and during any installation or maintenance work on the fire protection systems in the building, such as fire extinguishers, sprinklers, fire doors, or fire alarms. It is important to note that the responsible person or duty holder must adhere to the legislation throughout the entire life of the building – letting checks lapse may cause breaches to the legislation which could result in a fine or even a prison sentence.

Article 45 of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (for England and Wales) is the ‘duty to consult enforcing authority before passing plans’. This piece of legislation is aimed at local authorities who may be wishing to create new plans for a building, or otherwise refurbish or remodel a building.

Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005: Guidance Note No. 1: Enforcement (a government guidance note issued in 2007) states: “The article provides for consultation between local authorities and enforcing authorities for the Order in respect of plans deposited with local authorities in accordance with Building Regulations. The provision is necessary to ensure appropriate consultation between those authorities involved at the construction stage and later stages of the life of a building. Regulation 13 of the Building (Approved Inspectors etc) Regulations 2000 (SI 2000/2532) makes similar provision for consultation by Approved Inspectors.

“The consultation should clearly identify those fire precautions they believe are necessary and the rationale for those fire precautions. This consultation process should, therefore, ensure that there will be no significant increase in the number of occasions when additional fire precautions will be required after Building Regulation approval has been given. Guidance to enforcing authorities on the consultation process is provided within the Procedural Guidance 9 document issued by Communities and Local Government.

“Where enforcing authorities are consulted and are of the view that likely changes to the premises when they come into use may require additional fire precautions (e.g. introduction of racking into a speculatively built warehouse) it will be helpful if details can be passed back as part of the consultation process.”

Therefore, it is important that the local authority adheres to the need to consult the enforcing authority before any changes are made.

Using a professional’s help
It may also be worthwhile employing the services of a professional fire engineer and/or a fire risk assessor at the point of planning a refurbishment or refit, to aid in the consultation process, and to ensure the fire safety of the building. However, all the above-mentioned legislation states that anyone involved in the fire protection of a building must be ‘competent’.

The Fire Industry Association has guidance on how to choose competent risk assessors and fire engineers on its new ‘Fire Safety Advice’ page on its website. This page contains links to freely downloadable documents that highlight the competencies that fire risk assessors and fire engineers should have. The guidance is quite extensive to cover the core common competencies and should be consulted before hiring a professional.

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