After Grenfell: Jonathan O’Neill OBE on how austerity and policy “on the hoof” are hampering progress

FIREX 2019 kicked off with a forceful attack on the government’s response to the Grenfell Tower fire that killed 72 people in 2017.

Opening the FPA Infozone on day one of FIREX 2019, Jonathan O’Neill OBE, MD of the Fire Protection Association (FPA), told a packed theatre that policy had been “made on hoof”.

O’Neill – a fixture on our influencers list and a judge for the 2019 rankings – discussed the ‘implications for fire safety and future regulations’ post-Grenfell and said the Conservative government had been found wanting.

Two years on from the worst residential fire in living memory O’Neill was particularly scathing about the role played by James Brokenshire. The Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government had, he explained, “ducked the issue of regulatory change”.

Had the tragedy happened elsewhere in the world, he suggested, there would probably have been an immediate review of building regulations.

Some might be incredulous at that assertion, believing that a review had actually been promptly announced. However, Dame Judith Hackitt, who  chaired the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety, was tasked to examine the system as a whole rather than the composition of the regulations – called Approved Document B – themselves. Therefore some criticism levelled at the former head of the HSE was unfair since her remit had imposed constraints, suggested O’Neill.

It’s widely felt that Brexit is consuming Whitehall and drowning out other policy areas – even a first-order priority like Grenfell

It’s widely felt that Brexit is consuming Whitehall and drowning out other policy areas – even a first-order priority like Grenfell, as O’Neill conceded.

But Brexit cannot be blamed for the fact there hasn’t been a review of building regulations for over 12 years – during which time building design, methods and materials of construction have changed considerably.

So concerned was the FPA about the lack of an update to building regulations that it wrote its own guidance in 2015.

Why the inaction over regulations and various deficiencies in fire safety culture? Complacency, exacerbated by a decade of austerity, suggested O’Neill.

Fire deaths had fallen sharply in the five years leading up to Grenfell. This trend, which O’Neill hailed as “nothing less than spectacular,” was, among other things, driven by changes in furniture regulations, community safety campaigns led by fire services, wider adoption of smoke detectors and investment in advertising campaigns.

However, swingeing public sector cuts had reduced resources available to educate the public and responsible persons and led to fewer firefighters and station closures.

Grenfell Inquiry

But progress was being made – albeit not by politicians. If some government ministers had fallen short, they had at least appointed some impressive people to the task of revamping fire safety.

Sir Martin Moore-Bick, who is chairing the Grenfell Inquiry, is an impressive character, according to O’Neill, and determined to identify the myriad shortcomings that caused and exacerbated the tragedy at Grenfell. Expect hard-hitting conclusions to the inquiry, he said.

O’Neill recommended a “fresh eye” review into the appropriateness of building regulations as they stand. He said any updated document and related guidance should consider both the building’s external envelope and its resilience to fire ingress.

Fire protection and safety remains a less mature discipline than engineering, he said. As it stands regulations are not fit for purpose and too complex. Dame Judith has called for regulations to be written in plainer English.

“Few would disagree that enforcement and building control are broken,” said O Neill. The dual system of building control had driven talented people out of the profession.

Test standards too often do not reflect real life variables, he said, and needed revisiting.

The regulations should also consider property protection and resilience as well as life safety.

Arson should be afforded more attention and methods of construction need examination. A wider range of combustible materials are being used in construction than a few years ago.

He urged that the ban on combustible cladding should be extended on all high-risk buildings, not just on buildings over 18m high.

He also wanted to see a ban on single staircase evacuation, since in the event of a fire you need at least one staircase for people to be able to evacuate the building, and a second staircase for the fire and rescue services for entry.

It’s “crystal clear” that you can never entirely predict how fire will behave, said O’Neill. In light of this HMOs and tower blocks urgently needed better fire systems – and responsible persons cannot afford to wait for regulations to catch up. There were many such technologies at FIREX, noted O’Neill (including from C-TEC).

Competence

But better regulations are not enough if the people tasked with adhering to them are not appropriately qualified and conscientious.

Thankfully there is a “readymade” solution to the competence problem, said O’Neill: third party certification. It’s by far the simplest way to assure competence, he said – “a no-brainer.”

He cited fire alarm detector systems as an example of how this approach could remedy a longstanding problem. The number of false alarms had held steady at an unsustainable 150,000 a year over five years. If BRAC saw solid evidence that third-party certification can bring that number down, it will act. Third party certification is “pushing against an open door”, he said.

BRAC – the Building Regulations Advisory Committee – advises the secretary of state in England on making building regulations and setting standards for the design and construction of buildings.

O’Neill said the case for installing sprinklers in all tall buildings was now unanswerable. The argument was even more compelling following smoke toxicity research undertaken by Lancashire University.

O’Neill expressed incredulity that tower blocks that resemble Grenfell Tower in every way save for cladding were still being erected within sight of the Grenfell building.

When will the government wake up and effect some of the sorely needed changes, he wondered?

 

Life Safety and Fire Protection at FIREX 2019

There’s still time to join IFSEC Global at Europe’s only dedicated fire safety event, taking place 18-20 June, ExCeL London

Conversations around fire and life safety have never been more important, so join the discussion in person:

  • Enhance your fire safety strategy with insights from industry leaders at the Expertise & Guidance Theatre and FPA Infozone
  • Discover the latest technological advances and innovative products from across the globe
  • See cutting-edge fire safety solutions in action – hands-on demonstrations will help you evaluate the best methods for ensuring life safety

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