Reviewing Fire Risk Assessment Programmes

An image of a fire extinguisher

Reviewing Fire Risk Assessment Programmes

Ben Bradford answers the following questions ‘When does a fire risk assessment cease to be valid, and how often should they be reviewed?’

The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order, (FSO) and equivalent legislation in Scotland and Northern Ireland imposes a legal requirement, not just to undertake a fire risk assessment, but to review it regularly to keep it up-to date. This legal requirement can often trigger two questions in the minds of duty-holders and fire risk management professionals alike.  These are:

  1. When does a risk assessment cease to be valid?
  2. How often is ‘regularly reviewed’?

The first question is relatively easy to answer.  A fire risk assessment is a living document but it cannot remain valid for an unlimited length of time.  The fire risk assessment is likely to cease to be valid when, for example:

  1. A material alteration takes place;
  2. A significant change occurs in the ‘given’ factors that were taken into account when the fire risk assessment was carried out;
  3. A significant change in the fire precautions occurs.

PAS 79:2012, Fire Risk Assessment – Guidance and a recommended methodology provides some useful commentary on this, and therefore I will focus this article on the second and more difficult question posed, as this is a matter of judgement.

How often is regular?

Regular is defined in the English dictionary as “Recurring at uniform intervals”, but what is acceptable in terms of the frequency of review may differ dependent on the context of the Organisation.  Organisations have been coming to terms with the requirements of the FSO, since 2006.  Eight years on, vast sums of money have been spent undertaking fire risk assessments and dealing with the outcomes of fire risk assessments.  Many organisations have now completed a number of fire risk assessment programmes in succession, and many are currently considering the prospect of embarking on yet another FRA programme.  Some organisations are beginning to ask themselves the following, intelligent, and somewhat inevitable questions:

  1. How much safer are our buildings as a result of previous fire risk assessment programmes?
  2. Would the cost of undertaking subsequent fire risk assessment programmes be better spent in areas that would make the greatest reduction in fire risk?
  3. What do we need to do to satisfy legal requirements?
  4. Do we need to agree our proposals with the enforcing authority?

Successful governance of fire risk does mean keeping an eye on cost proportionality, whilst identifying the general fire precautions one needs to take.  This is indeed the very essence of ‘risk assessment’.

Fire risk assessment programmes have evolved over the last eight or so years, and roughly consist of the following programme types:

  • Fire Risk Assessment Programmes;
  • Fire Risk Assessment and Review Programmes;
  • Fire Risk Assessment Review Programmes;

Fire Risk Assessment Programmes

Full fire risk assessment programmes can be undertaken annually, biannually or triennially, and by full fire risk assessment we mean undertake a suitable and sufficient fire risk assessment using something not dissimilar to the Model pro-forma for documentation of a fire risk assessment found in Annex B of PAS 79:2012.  Whilst this is a perfectly acceptable method of satisfying the legal obligation of undertaking suitable and sufficient fire risk assessments, we must recognise that it is also a legal requirement to keep a fire risk assessment under review or up to date and therefore merely undertaking brand new assessments each year may not ensure full compliance with the legal requirement unless consideration is given to the extent to which the original action plan has been implemented.  Work that has not been completed needs to be identified.  Many competent consultants are reluctant to visit a building and merely undertake a review of the previous assessment if it was undertaken by someone outside their Organisation.  This is due to the criminal, contractual, and tort (negligence) liabilities to which fire risk assessors are exposed.  Whilst they may be commissioned to undertake a review, many simply undertake a new fire risk assessment.

Fire Risk Assessment and Review Programmes

A fire risk assessment and review programme can also be undertaken annually, biannually, or triennially but the difference is that the pattern of reoccurrences consists of full fire risk assessment (as above) followed by fire risk assessment review using something not dissimilar to the model pro-forma for documentation of a review of the existing fire risk assessment contained in Annex E of PAS 79: 2012.  For example many organisations undertake full fire risk assessments in year one, followed by reviews in year two, procured on the basis of a two year or biannual contract.

Fire Risk Assessment Review Programmes

Fire risk assessment review programmes are embarked upon if a suitable and sufficient fire risk assessment is in-place, again using something not dissimilar to the model pro-forma for documentation of a review of the existing fire risk assessment contained in Annex E of PAS 79: 2012.

The type of fire risk assessment programme chosen by an organisation will be dependent on a host of variables and therefore it is not easy to suggest ‘best practice’ on a sector by sector basis.  This decision is best made by the organisation in partnership with whoever is undertaking their assessments.

The million dollar question – how can we extend the programme?

There is no correct or incorrect frequency for the regular review of the fire risk assessment.  This is a matter for the judgement of the fire risk assessor.  Organisations seeking to extend the time period between cyclical fire risk assessment programmes are strongly advised to formulate a formal proposal based on the context of the organisation and its portfolio then put this to their local fire enforcing authority.  There is no statutory duty to consult the fire authority but it would be a sensible move and perhaps provide some additional assurance if they confirm they are happy with the proposal.  The following steps would significantly improve the chances of agreement:

  1. The organisation formalises its fire risk management system in accordance with the national guidance contained within PAS 7: 2013.
  2. The organisation considers entering a Primary Authority Scheme with their chosen Fire Authority.
  3. The organisation develops a formal proposal for consideration

Formalisation of an organisation’s fire risk management system in accordance with PAS 7: 2013 – Fire Risk Management System Specification, works hand in glove with the Primary Authority Scheme initiative, and improves the chances of fire authorities being able to offer ‘assured advice’.  Moreover it is a clear demonstration to wider stakeholders that the organisation takes excellence in fire risk management seriously.  Should the organisation decide to obtain fire risk management system certification via a UKAS accredited third party certification body then it may well be the case that the organisation will no longer be the subject of ad-hoc inspections from fire authorities.

Formalising the organisations fire risk management system would have numerous benefits, but the management review requirement in clause 8.3, is particularly relevant to those wishing to put forward a case for extending fire risk assessment programme cycles.   Clause 8.3.1 requires top management to review the organisation’s FRMS, at planned intervals to ensure its continuing suitability, adequacy and effectiveness. This particular requirement can provide robust assurance to enforcing authorities that significant changes in the ‘given’ factors can be reviewed, considered and addressed prior to fire risk assessment or fire risk assessment reviews being undertaken on a given date. 

A fire risk management certification audit, internal auditing, annual surveillance, and triennial re-certification by a UKAS accredited third party certification body is a fairly robust process (which includes internal and external auditing of fire risk assessments) which ‘may’ enable organisations to move beyond annual, biannual, triennial FRA programmes.   

The primary authority scheme initiative would be very beneficial if the organisation operates a portfolio of buildings spread across different fire and rescue service geographic boundaries.  The primary authority scheme seeks to ensure greater consistency of advice.  Together these steps would significantly strengthen the case for extending the programme and rather than simply spending large sums of money year after year, fire risk assessing the same portfolio of buildings, they may enable the organisation to re-direct finite resources to where they can make the greatest contribution to fire safety.

Ben Bradford BSc MSc MBA CEng FCIBSE FIFireE FRICS VPCABE

Managing Director for and on behalf of BB7

Email: benbradford@bbseven.com

Mobile: 07850 938726