FireAngel’s connected home director, James King, discusses the role digital technologies will play in the future of fire safety with Dan Daly, the National Fire Chiefs’ Council lead and former assistant commissioner for fire safety for the London Fire Brigade.
James King: The National Fire Chiefs’ Council is working with every fire and rescue service in the UK to drive changes that will stop events such as the Grenfell Tower fire from happening again. What is the NFCC doing to change the way that buildings, including high-rise homes, are constructed, refurbished and managed?
Dan Daly: In the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, the NFCC worked alongside the government and other partners, carrying out some initial reviews of high-rise residential buildings where there were concerns about their external wall systems. This has led to a more comprehensive review of all high-rise residential buildings in a building risk review process that will be completed at the end of 2021, with NFCC coordinating and supporting the fire and rescue services across the UK.
We contributed to the Hackitt review of the building safety regime, providing the knowledge and experience of all services in carrying out their regulatory role to help inform the necessary improvements needed right across that regime. Allied to this work has been the development of the Fire Safety Bill (FSB), the Building Safety Bill (BSB) and the associated guidance. The FSB seeks to clarify the scope and application of the Fire Safety Order. The BSB will enable some of the recommendations from the Hackitt review and the Grenfell Tower inquiry, but also provide transparent accountability for safety throughout the lifecycle of a building.
NFCC has throughout been represented on the government’s independent expert panel and now chairs the Fire Protection Board, looking not only at high-rise buildings, but also developing advice to support the remediation of buildings with unsafe cladding systems and a mandate to look at other higher risk property types.
A major challenge post-Grenfell has been the availability and reliability of information about the built environment. While this has improved, there is still some way to go to ensure that if large swathes of the current building stock need to be reviewed in future, there is accurate information about the occupancy of buildings, the materials used in their construction, their safety systems, how they are being maintained and so on, to inform necessary interventions and actions. This is why the Hackitt reports recommendations for a ‘golden thread’ of information are so important.
The draft Building Safety Bill was released in 2020, following the recommendations outlined in the Hackitt report. What opportunities and challenges does the NFCC feel the provisions in the bill present?
The draft bill is a really important milestone towards change, with much to be welcomed. However, it’s the case that a lot of the detail for the secondary legislation has yet to be seen, and there are some areas where we think the bill should go further.
We believe the scope of the Gateways regime for new builds could reasonably be wider from the outset. The impact assessment identifies that the bill will capture around 400 new high-rise residential buildings per year. This is a small number proportionately, and we would like to see consideration given to including more premise types where vulnerable people live, from day one.
To create the right incentives in the system, the ability for clients to choose their own regulator should also be removed for all buildings, not just a subset. In that regard, we have welcomed the recent report from the housing, communities and local government select committee following its pre-legislative scrutiny.
In terms of new and emerging technologies, having better information about construction products, along with test and performance data, is going to be key to support the regulation of fire safety. Moreover, the bill would benefit from further clarification to improve confidence in the product testing regime to ensure that safe products are being used.
The regulation of construction products should also scrutinise modern methods of construction (MMC) better, an area where an understanding of materials and construction technique performance is vital for those specifying their use. Consistency in this area would better enable building control bodies to focus on checking that products that have been approved are being installed correctly. A shared platform will be essential for all regulators in the area to share data and report deficiencies or instances of materials and products being used incorrectly or beyond their tested limits.
NFCC’s submission on the draft bill is available from: committees.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/11931/pdf.
To successfully achieve this, how important is the transition from a paper-based approach to a digitalised methodology that uses connected systems to support remote monitoring?
From a firefighting perspective, it’s imperative that we understand what the risk posed by any situation really looks like, and digital technologies can provide an understanding in real time of where people are in a building, what support may be needed in an emergency, what risk the building may present due to ongoing maintenance or failures in mechanisms to support firefighting and what actions must be taken to mitigate against those risks. The real-time availability of this information is crucial, not only regarding the time-critical stages of an emergency but also to inform pre-planning and general awareness for fire crews.
In protection and prevention terms, the successful implementation of technologies that support the capture and evaluation of relevant building information will provide an approach that is extremely efficient, especially when compared to traditional paper-based methods. It will help fire and rescue services target our prevention activities, such as home fire-safety checks, towards the most vulnerable in our communities, informing our risk-based inspection programmes for protection activities and alerting us to changed circumstances in the occupancy or condition of the building to update what we know.
There is a real opportunity at relatively low cost to install fire suppressions systems, common fire alarms and monitoring systems during the build phase of buildings to improve their accessibility and suitability for all residents, regardless of vulnerabilities to futureproof the building for changes over time. Equally, this would give developers the opportunity to market their properties using safety and accessibility as significant benefits. However, the challenge is to ensure we don’t forget about the existing housing stock and work with those responsible for them to consider how these systems can be retrofitted to support improved safety, and for the sector to continue to develop less intrusive and cost-effective ways this can be introduced.
In response to the recent release of the Charter for Social Housing Residents’ Social Housing White Paper, which aims to ensure greater landlord accountability and enhanced tenant safety, what opportunities does the digitalisation of data present for individuals living in these buildings?
NFCC welcomes the paper and in particular the strengthening of the ‘resident’s voice’. Public safety goes beyond being physically safe – it includes feeling safe and secure, and the paper aims to ensure that it’s easier for residents to raise concerns and be kept informed about safety where they live and understand their role in supporting their safety.
The consultation on smoke, carbon-monoxide alarms and electrical safety is also welcomed, and we would support the intent to introduce the same legal responsibilities in social housing as those that already exist for the private sector.
The proposals will have implications for landlords and building owners, and these are similar to what we discussed earlier about building safety information. This is an opportunity to consider how digital technologies can connect residents with information about where they live, intelligent systems that support life-safety systems in buildings and information to responders so that the building safety requirements and the intent of this paper are met in a cohesive, joined-up way.
Finally, coronavirus has had a significant impact on the sector during 2020. How has the sector adapted to the challenges of the pandemic, particularly inability to gain physical access to properties and increased requirements for remote monitoring?
Fire services have adapted the way we conduct our prevention and protection activities, working with partners to continue to support our most vulnerable and target those premises that present the highest risk through virtual delivery and desktop approaches, among other activities.
Connected technologies have and continue to play an essential role in how businesses have adapted, presenting an intelligence-led way for service delivery by using remote monitoring of residents, systems and facilities to reduce physical checks and only responding to issues that are identified.
It’s important that we evolve to the challenges presented during 2020 and that we take the opportunity to evaluate what worked well, not only so we are better placed to meet this sort of challenge in the future but also to improve the reach and coverage of vital services to vulnerable persons and targeting of risk for essential services.
James King is the connected home director at FireAngel. Dan Daly is the lead for the National Fire Chiefs’ Council and a former assistant commissioner for fire safety for the London Fire Brigade.