Opinion: Rising to the fire safety compliance challenge | News

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The Innovation and Technology Network

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Opinion: Rising to the fire safety compliance challenge

By Mike Barlow, Chief Technology Officer at Riskhub

No housing professional needs reminding of the importance of conducting regular fire risk assessments (FRAs) on their buildings and ensuring required actions are completed on time.

What is worth exploring, however, are the challenges facing housing providers in undertaking this process.

Consider this: a housing provider conducts FRAs on 20 of its blocks and each generates 100 actions – this is not uncommon. That is 2,000 actions that need to be logged, prioritised and undertaken. Then the process repeats the following year.

There are other blocks that require FRAs and associated actions. There is also changing legislation and ensuring the required works are completed correctly and on time.

In the years we have worked supporting housing providers, we have seen a wide range of approaches to managing this process. Some organisations have a slick set of procedures and a clear ‘golden thread’ record of actions undertaken.

Others do not. In fact, we often see clients who are simply worn down by the unremitting nature of the process they have in place to ensuring compliance with fire safety and other regulations.

This is clearly not a good place to be. These individuals are at the frontline of ensuring tenants are safe in their homes. The good news is that there are solutions available to address many of the key challenges housing providers face in managing compliance. Here we consider some of these in more detail.

Spaghetti junction of data

At present, most housing providers find they need to use numerous systems for the different main compliance areas: fire, gas, electrical, legionella and asbestos.

Despite intentions to the contrary, these systems often don’t properly talk to each other or integrate with the asset management register. This results in duplicated work and no single picture of the present status of an individual property.

As a result, when it comes to auditing the system and providing risk assurance to the leadership team and regulators, this can be very time-consuming. Indeed, at the heart of many recent regulatory interventions is a problem with data in terms of its completeness or accuracy.

The fact that, in our experience, so many people can have access to and the power to amend data means it is often very hard for a housing provider to rely on the information they hold about their homes.

Clearly this is problematic in terms of ensuring actions are undertaken when required, but also in demonstrating compliance to regulators and customers.

Simple solutions

These problems are relatively straightforward to identify, but how can they be solved?

One piece of advice we regularly offer to clients is to smooth out the programme of FRAs wherever possible and spread them across the year to minimise peaks and troughs. Returning to our initial example, as opposed to assessing all 20 buildings at once, bring some of the FRAs forward so the work can be staggered.

For instance, five buildings surveyed in each quarter. Even if each generates 100 actions, that is 500 actions a quarter as opposed to 2,000 all in one go. This is easier said than done and requires a cultural shift, but, in our experience, the benefits far outweigh the costs.

In addition to innovative thinking, technological innovation also offers some useful answers. For instance, the creation of fully auditable compliance data management systems that record what actions are taken when and by whom across a whole property portfolio.

Increasing pace of change

It is clear more changes are in train which will affect fire safety and the wider compliance programme. Following the Grenfell Tower tragedy, many of the changes are positive as they are ultimately all about ensuring clarity and accountability.

Some elements worth considering relate to the right of access to information for residents and also for fire services.

The Building Safety Bill is expected to introduce a requirement for residents of buildings above a certain height to have access to certain fire safety information. It will need to be the case that this information complies with data protection rules, while still presenting a clear picture.

This follows the Fire Safety Act 2021, which extends the requirements on FRAs to cover cladding, entrance doors and other external features of high-rise buildings. Housing providers and building managers must be able to demonstrate the recommended actions in FRAs have been undertaken in a timely manner.

There are also requirements coming into force that require housing providers to be able to conduct Building Safety Reviews and undertake more detailed fire door assessments.

Housing providers are rising to the building safety challenge with significant increases in investment in existing homes, as well as more rigorous safety standards for new properties. Ensuring a robust and reliable approach to managing the ongoing safety of these homes should be a priority as well.