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Call for update on fire safety regs after Lakanal recommendations ignored

6 November 2015

The Fire Sector Federation (FSF) – in conjunction with the Construction Industry Council – is calling for an overhaul of Approved Document B on fire safety after gathering evidence that even the experts find the document confusing and inconsistent. 

The double survey, of organisations in the Federation and members of the CIC, comes two and a half years after the coroner at the Lakanal House inquest recommended that the guidance supporting Part B of the Building Regulations should be made far simpler.

The inquest into the July 2009 Lakanal House fire, in which six people lost their lives, heard that even the experts disagreed on the interpretation of Approved Document B.

The coroner’s “Section 43” letter to the then communities secretary Eric Pickles recommended a review of Approved Document B to improve usability, but this has not been acted on. 

The FSF brings together the UK’s fire and rescue services, academics, construction developers, the insurance industry, manufacturers of fire safety equipment, planners and building control officers.

The surveys of its members found that 92% of respondents believe that changes need to made to the Building Regulations and Approved Document B.

"The surveys' results demonstrate that there is a consensus that Approved Document B is extremely hard to understand. The areas that were identified as particularly bad are the language and the definitions [of building types] within the documents."

Celestine Cheong

A further survey circulated to members of the CIC revealed that more than half of the respondents find the documentation hard to use.

Part B only received only minor revisions when it was last looked at in 2013, with the last full revision made in 2006.

Construction Manager understands that Part B is not up for review in DCLG’s current work programme, although the department has commissioned a “user study” on Approved Document B. 

Celestine Cheong, chair of the built environment issues and affairs workstream at the FSF, told Construction Manager: “There has been a lot of talk about the difficulties of using the Building Regs and its guidance in Part B, but we wanted to provide proof that people are not happy with them; the accessibility and navigational aspects of the structure are not conducive to easy usage and that people want something new.

“The survey’s results demonstrate that there is a consensus that Approved Document B is extremely hard to understand. The areas that were identified as particularly bad are the language and the definitions [of building types] within the documents,” she said.

And the FSF has urged the government to speed up the process of reviewing Part B. Cheong said: “At the recent Fire Sector Summit conference, Neil Cooper [chair of the Building Regulations Advisory Committee] said that an update in 2017 was possible and 2018 was more realistic. There needs to be pressure placed on ministers to speed up the agenda.”

Graham Watts chief executive of the CIC, added: “As best practice and new technology evolves, it is essential that building regulations and guidance documents are aligned with these new developments, that they are clear in their meaning and easy to use. This necessitates a regular need for review to ensure relevance.

“A review of Approved Document B is long overdue. I welcome the findings of this study in drawing attention to problems that are challenging FSF and CIC members and may be compromising fire safety in our built environment.”

The lack of government response to the Lakanal coroner’s recommendations has been attributed by some to the fact that legal action on the case has been continuing.

Last year, a compensation claim against London Fire Brigade and the London Borough of Southwark under the Human Rights Act, brought by Fernando Francisquini, who lost his daughter and two grandchildren in the fire, was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum. 

But Construction Manager understands that Francisquini and his legal adviser Sophie Khan are now considering legal action against the Crown Prosecution Service to overturn its decision, made in May 2012 and a year before the inquest, not to pursue corporate manslaughter charges. 

Meanwhile, the FSF and CIC surveys also drew attention to a long-running debate in the fire sector, on whether Part B should be solely focused on “life safety” in the event of a fire, or whether its remit should include saving property and assets as well.

The surveys found that 82% of FSF members believe that the scope should be considered beyond “life safety” whereas 54% of CIC members said “life safety” is sufficient.

The FSF now believes that the UK’s regulations should be moved more in line with other countries in Europe.

Cheong told Construction Manager: “At present, the English regs are not aligned with those in the rest of the UK, let alone Europe. In the UK warehouses over 20,000 sq m are advised to have sprinkler systems installed, compared to 800 sq m in Norway and 2,000 sq m in Spain, which are mandatory.

“Sprinklers are not even mandatory in schools or care homes. Aspects of the current regs aren’t bad, but every country is different and ours need updating.”

But Geoff Wilkinson, an approved inspector and managing director of Wilkinson Construction Consultants, believes that defining the size of buildings that require sprinklers should not be included in any update as this is crosses the boundary into property protection, not life safety.

“The regs are designed to ensure life safety and they should not be extended to property protection, there is already advice for this. There used to be local legislation that demanded that sprinklers were installed but these have all been withdrawn.

“There is definitely scope for making the documents easier to use and I would welcome a move away from current methods, with a move more towards risk-based assessment. However, any change should not extend the scope of Part B to property protection.”

Comments

It is a massive oversimplification to say that the Lakanal House findings have been ignored. There was an immediate huge rush to update fire risk assessments on residential blocks ans in some cases, carry out one for the first time despite the law changing long before.
There was never likely to be any prosecutions at Southwark council, due to a potential conflicting relationship with London Fire Brigade. Part of the claim that interpretation of ADB was to blame relates to more fundamental misunderstanding of fire resistant materials and direction of fire spread. This is pure incompetence by either designers or contractors, not the guidance.The replacement Approved Document B will be revised in the next few years and it was heavily discussed at the Fire Sector Summit this week with over 200 delegates and many fire industry bodies represented. The construction industry needs to raise its game in terms of correct attention to detail in fire separation and stopping with more training or use of specialist contractors.

Mike Floyd, 6 November 2015

Agree about the complexity of AD B, There is too much going backwards and forwards through the document to find the correct guidance, which often ends up in a footnote.

A. Gilbert, 6 November 2015

As somebody who has worked in property, construction, further education and the fire service I think I have a reasonable understanding of the different priorities. Mike is right that there are skills issues in construction which need to be addressed by the CITB and awarding bodies but on reflection life safety has to take priority over anything else. I'm not an advocate of mandatory sprinklers. They have their place but only if a robust risk assessment justifies them.

Andy Chapman, 6 November 2015

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