Fire is a key concern for human and building safety. Prominent building failures in Scotland as well as the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy in England, and their subsequent inquiries have brought a keen and highly justified focus on fire safety and effective fire-stopping measures.
The Scottish Government commissioned a series of independent inquiries and reviews into building safety and the effectiveness of the Scottish Building Standards system. In addition, in 2019, a new “Building Standards Futures Board” was established. Its role is to strategically advise and direct a broad programme of work aimed at improving the performance, expertise, resilience and sustainability of the Scottish building standards framework and services across Scotland.
A key discussion point of the Futures Board was the introduction of a certification scheme for fire-stopping. Whilst ‘fire-stopping’ is a term well known in the passive fire industry sector to control fire spread via service penetrations or gaps in or around doors, walls, floors, services etc., the term has been used more widely in this report to describe all active and passive fire safety measures in a building designed to inhibit fire growth. The purpose of this study is to investigate the appetite and demand for a new certification scheme covering both active and passive fire safety measures commonly found in a building. Active fire safety systems include items such as fire detection and alarm systems, automatic fire suppression systems, while passive fire safety measures involve the build and materials of walls, floors, doors, structural frames, beams, columns etc. designed to prevent the spread of fires and premature building collapse.
At present, there are four voluntary certification schemes in operation. These consist of two schemes focusing on Design (Building Structure and Energy) -domestic and non-domestic, and two for Construction (Drainage, Heating and Plumbing as well as Electrical Installations). To be certified under such a scheme, competent individuals can be appointed as Approved Certifiers of Design or Approved Certifiers of construction. This gives them the authority to certify the work they undertake, as part of a building warrant, is compliant with building regulations. Once certified, Approved Certifiers complete regular competence audits, which are managed via approved Scheme Providers.
This research investigated the appetite amongst a sample of stakeholders, Local Authorities, contractors and insurers for such a certification scheme as well as related practical considerations including scope, potential benefits, and possible challenges to the implementation of a scheme.
For this purpose, fifteen stakeholders including fire safety experts, certification providers and contractors as well as eight local authorities, fifteen contractors involved with fire safety and five insurers were interviewed.
The research reveals that a certification scheme in fire-stopping is seen as potentially beneficial for public safety, consistency and customer confidence. Stakeholders such as scheme providers were supportive of a fire-stopping certification scheme’s introduction.
There is consensus among the research participants that building failures in Scotland and the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy have reinvigorated awareness of the importance of fire safety. In addition, they are in agreement that a certification scheme can improve fire safety and installation thereby promoting public safety and potentially saving lives.
A scheme would require the setting of consistent guidelines for active and passive fire safety measures, with the ensuing benefit of building compliance and due diligence.
While there is agreement on the benefits for public safety, research participants were divided on potential commercial/financial benefits. Local authorities were uncertain whether a fire-stopping certification scheme would relieve pressure/reduce workload related to building inspections, thereby freeing up resources for other tasks. Local Authorities agreed that a certification scheme would not reduce the statutory obligations of Local Authorities for inspection and verification.
There is also uncertainty how a scheme could work in practice, what its scope might be and what impact it may have on commercial factors.
Insurers are skeptical as to whether being certified under a new scheme may lead to reduced Professional Indemnity Insurance (PII) premiums, as some contractors have hoped. While there may be the possibility for reduced premiums on a case by case basis, in general PII premiums are based on the entire UK construction industry. Related risk calculations are equally based on nationwide considerations and work involving cladding and fire safety has been deemed high risk by insurers following the Grenfell tragedy. Premiums have therefore increased in recent years and, we were told, are unlikely to decrease in the medium term.
Some contractors are also concerned about increased bureaucracy and costs as a result of an introduction of a certification scheme.
In terms of fire safety knowledge, there is no overall consensus on the quality and extent of current, relevant training and qualifications. Local Authorities were largely in agreement that current training lacks practical focus and needs to be improved for a fire-stopping certification scheme. Some stakeholders go further and call for a general overhaul of the current qualifications, including relevant NVQs which are deemed insufficient to ensure competence in fire-stopping. Contractors, on the other hand, feel that the construction certification process provides sufficient training for fire-stopping through a range of different bodies. Nevertheless, there is broad agreement that enhanced or expanded qualifications would be beneficial and that fire safety knowledge could be increased as a result.
The potential scope of a scheme was also subject to much discussion. No clear consensus emerged whether the scheme should cover either design and/or construction phases, or if the scheme should be made mandatory. Although not in discussion for the purposes of this research, a mandatory scheme (all existing certification schemes are optional) is regarded as hard to enforce but in the long term the best approach.
Overall, there is agreement that the introduction of a scheme will require a suitable scheme provider, a solid commercial basis, for instance through fees, and that a transition period will be effective in helping to set up the certification infrastructure and to create an established pool of certified professionals.
Based on these results, this research report forwards the following key recommendations:
1. To introduce a certification scheme on fire-stopping to cover active and passive fire safety measures.
2. If introduced, it should be phased in gradually and be supported by a solid commercial basis, preferably through a fee-paying system. In this context, financial assistance may be considered necessary to promote the opportunity of upskilling in fire-stopping and fire safety.
3. A fire-stopping certification should remain voluntary to ensure consistency with the four existing (voluntary) certification schemes;
4. In terms of scope, the certification scheme should focus on construction as the concerns voiced by research participants (including qualifications and training) are primarily related to construction work;
5. Existing qualifications and training relevant to fire-stopping would benefit from a review.
6. This leaves final questions not answered through this research but for initial consideration:
7.1. If introduced, should such a scheme ultimately remain voluntary, there was some support for a mandatory scheme?
7.2. Is the amendment or enhancement of existing certification schemes, through enhancement in the Technical Handbooks the sections on fire-stopping, a viable alternative?
7.3. One immediate first step might be to focus activities on improving and reinforcing all the training and qualifications related to fire-safety.