Incorrectly, or non-installed, passive fire protection is often described as a building’s “hidden” risk. A hidden risk that doesn’t always present itself visually to building users, occupiers and owners. 

Indicators of these issues often only present themselves at fire risk assessment stage, and even then, it is habitually the case that a more extensive compartmentation inspection or fire door inspection becomes necessary to fully understand the extent of the problem.

The Dangers of a Building’s “Hidden” Risk

To an untrained eye, a fire door does not readily show the risk it presents, and a riser cupboard can have poorly protected pipe/cable penetrations hidden from public view - these need to be expertly searched for to realise the in-situ dangers.

The solutions are less obvious too. Other than when a fire door is fully replaced, the extent of works undertaken is not as obvious as shiny new signage or a bright red fire extinguisher.  Often, when a client finds the need for passive fire works, the common observations tend to be; “this is a new thing”, “we have never had this issue before”, “the building is years old, how can this be an issue?”!

Too frequently, these are the standard reactionary responses to long-standing construction or building management failures. If not, the problems clients face would have been surely been sought years previously…wouldn’t they?

Contrary to this opinion, the first accreditations started all the way back in the early 2000’s and have now developed into current, well established schemes such as LPCB, Firas and BM Trada.

Are you Raising the Bar in Building Safety?

Largely, it has taken the industry as a whole, rather than legislation alone, through an array of assessors, surveyors, installers, accreditation bodies and trade associations, to drive awareness and key improvements to the fire safety of our built environment. Although you would think industry awareness is at an all-time high with all this activity, unfortunately it has taken devastating high-profile fires to accelerate legislative change and focus on passive fire protection.

Time and time again, we see reactivity, instead of proactivity.

Working within the passive fire industry makes me sometimes think it is as high on everyone else’s agenda as it is on mine - it is talked about and considered at every level, but really, is it?

Through undertaking CPD seminars to raise the awareness of fire doors and fire stopping, feedback sometimes shows there is a sense of client frustration. Attendees leave courses better informed, but often say it is the board of directors who need to be on the course, not just those attending. This is because to really make a difference, they now face climbing the almost-impossible budgetary approval mountain. 

Protecting Your Buildings Starts in the Board Room

Do the board rooms of private businesses, the civil servants, finance directors, procurers, CEO’s, decision and policy makers, really know how important getting passive fire protection is for their business? 

Does the M&E business completing PPM or reactive works really understand the risks of not fire-stopping the pipe or cable they have just put through the compartment line? 

Do corporates really know the irreparable damage a fire could do to the finances of their business – not to mention the potential loss of life when a total loss occurs?

It would be unfair to suggest that all organisations follow this pattern - some stand out from the crowd, firmly placing PFP works as a priority within their overall fire strategy. Over the years, I’ve seen many clients who are very active in undertaking wholescale improvement projects over a long period of time.  Social housing, student accommodation and the NHS are good examples of sectors where investment in PFP has steadily increased over the last few years.

In occupied buildings, it is not just budget as the only “hot” topic, I would like to discuss some of the likely reasons why corrective action is not always forthcoming;

  • Education being the obvious one - not knowing the risks posed in the first place, and therefore unknowingly not acting upon early indicators of issues
  • Understanding the role of the fire risk assessment; taking issues found as literal, rather than systemic within a building – for instance where there are passive fire defects found on 4 fire doors in an FRA, the client instructs for the 4 doors to be rectified to satisfy the FRA. However, an FRA is only a snapshot report, and there may be another 100 doors in a similar condition within the building.
  • Obligations - Often contractual obligations of a building management company may only extend to “surveying” or “checking” fire doors at a prescribed frequency, such as inspecting the same fire door every 6 months, simply adding to the list of issues without actual rectification
  • Qualification – better than ever numbers of third-party accredited companies, with variable weightings shifting between price and quality.

Breaking the Budget Taboo

Whichever way the news arrives, a not so popular decision needs to be made.  The “hot-topic” is not agreement that there is an irreparable “problem”; when assessed by a third-party accredited supplier, correctly in line with the building use, construction and fire strategy it is rarely the case that a solution cannot be found.   It is also rarely the case that the problem is simply ignored; frequently, it tends to be that the improvements cannot be afforded, or priorities in budgets are different through stakeholder levels within organisations, leading to decisions that are simply not made. 

Fire is still a sensitive topic. While some organisations embrace change openly, disclosing the need to spend more to improve, for many, the idea of a sudden unquantifiable change in budget is difficult to understand, and admission of any fire safety failing may not be palatable to share in the public domain.

When faced with a significant rectification cost, decision making can take years. Contractors in some instances reviewing aged surveys point to “kicking the can down the road”, or the potential lack of leadership and action. 

Should the PFP contractor be helping in this prioritisation - embracing a consultative approach, and taking the view that delivering some works are better for building safety than no action at all?  Whilst all areas of defective passive fire protection create risk to lives and buildings, working closely with building engineers, fire risk assessors and contractors allow for pragmatic approaches to budgets, prioritising higher risk concerns, and reducing the impact of the budget by setting in motion remediation plans over time. 

Emerging changes from the Fire Safety Bill, through the elevated understanding of the responsible person and the introduction of building safety managers, should remove budget from being a “hot” topic, to becoming “the” topic.   It is time to embrace the challenge of passive fire protection as an investment opportunity, protecting a building’s life-cycle, off-setting rising insurance cost, and treating PFP as another essential part of a buildings critical PPM’s.

Until recent pandemic times, a fire could be the single most impactful and devastating event to occur to lives and a business.

Budgets, although important, should not stifle necessary decision making.