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Post-Grenfell Hackitt Report falls close to home

Posted on : Monday, 15 January 2018

In December 2017, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) in the UK presented an interim report to Parliament titled "Building a Safer Future, Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety".

 

Dame Judith Hackitt, an experienced engineer with long-term roles in community safety, was appointed by DCLG to conduct the review as part of the ongoing response to the Grenfell Tower tragedy that occurred on 14 June 2017. Seventy-one people died in this single building incident that shocked the world. The lives of affected families, friends, emergency responders and the community have been changed forever. The legacy of this fire must be meaningful change and it represents a sobering reminder of the respect we all need to have for fire safety.

 

Combustible exterior cladding has been identified as the likely culprit behind the extent and speed of the fire's spread. The building was also not sprinkler protected. Sprinklers have long proven to be a critical and consistent life safety measure in other buildings of this size and use. Sprinkler systems must be considered as part of a holistic response to fire, however and there is no certainty regarding what the loss of life would have been at Grenfell if they were fitted given the combustibility of the façade installed.

 

This situation regarding the use of exterior cladding that could be combustible caused alarm within government and fear in the communities living in other residential towers. This led to a national program to test the cladding installed on other high-rise buildings in the UK.

 

Although this testing program has been triggered by, and focused on, one building element, Dame Hackitt's review is focused on the broad systemic issues that have led to regulatory and industry failure. She identifies that the focus of the UK's Building Regulations Advisory Committee (BRAC) in recent years "has been mainly on energy efficiency and the deregulatory agenda and less on fire safety and other aspects of the regulations".

 

If you think this sounds familiar, I don't blame you. Make no mistake, this is a line in the sand moment for the UK, and the world is watching. This represents a political and social opportunity to focus efforts in order to check and recalibrate what's important, and get the balance right.

 

In his regular column in the NFPA Journal on international issues, Donald P. Bliss, Vice President of Field Operations for NFPA, observed in the October 2017 edition that fire protection is "a matter of will".

 

"The world knows a lot about fire," said Bliss. "We know how to prevent it and how to keep people from dying from it. But as the string of recent tragedies in Oakland, Iran, Hawaii, and now London illustrate, common-sense safety measures keep getting lost in the noise of everyday life-and we are paying with human lives. It is unacceptable."

 

"I'm sure that many policies, procedures, and actions will be investigated and turned upside down in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire. I and many others hope that Grenfell will be a global call to action to make the necessary changes-such as more timely code adoption, more diligent regulation, and more effective oversight and enforcement-to increase fire safety across the globe. We have the knowledge; what we need now is the will."

 

Dame Hackitt's interim report reveals with devastating frankness and chilling poignancy the cultural and behavioural aspects of an industry that need to change. It outlines that this can only happen if government regulators and industry work together to introduce wholesale and effective framework reforms. Fire safety reforms are effective when they shift attitudes and support good practice, focused on core safety and compliance objectives to avoid similar disasters.

 

The summarised list of observations and recommendations from Dame Hackitt's Interim Report shown below is eerily close to home, and can well describe the Australian landscape and the change we need locally for the same reasons.

 

Chiefly, the key finding of the review to date has been that:

 

"The current regulatory system for ensuring fire safety in high-rise and complex buildings is not fit for purpose. This applies throughout the life cycle of a building, both during construction and occupation, and is a problem connected both to the culture of the construction industry and the effectiveness of the regulators."

 

That is pretty damning for an industry that represents a significant national economic driver and is expected to deliver a safe and compliant consumer product in an affluent and sophisticated society like the UK.

 

Dame Hackitt has identified six areas where change is required. These are listed below with just a sample of her observations, findings and recommendations within each.

 

 

Regulation and guidance

 

  • "Current regulations and guidance are too complex and unclear. This can lead to confusion and misinterpretation in their application to high-rise and complex buildings."
  • "It is clearly the role of government to set the basic framework of standards which must be achieved and to make it clear who has responsibility for delivering those standards of performance throughout the life cycle."
  • "The government should consider how the suite of Approved Documents could be structured and ordered to provide a more streamlined, holistic view while retaining the right level of relevant technical detail."

 

Roles and responsibilities

 

  • "Clarity of roles and responsibilities is poor. Even where there are requirements for key activities to take place across design, construction and maintenance, it is not always clear who has responsibility for making it happen."
  • "There is a widespread culture in relation to building and fire standards of waiting to be told what to do by regulators rather than taking responsibility for building to correct standards. This approach is very much driven by aiming for minimum compliance, not ensuring safety for the lifetime of the building."
  • "There has been a widespread call for greater consistency of use of terms to identify key responsibilities with the system."

 

Competence

 

  • "Despite many who demonstrate good practice, the means of assessing and ensuring the competency of key people throughout the system is inadequate. There is often no differentiation in competency requirements for those working on high-rise and complex buildings."
  • "There is a need to raise levels of competence and establish formal accreditation of those engaged in the fire prevention aspects of the design, construction, inspection and maintenance of high-rise residential and complex buildings."
  • "The professional and accreditation bodies have an opportunity to demonstrate that they are capable of establishing a robust, comprehensive and coherent system covering all disciplines for work on such buildings."

 

Process, compliance and enforcement

 

  • "Compliance, enforcement and sanctions processes are too weak. What is being designed is not what is being built and there is a lack of robust change control. The lack of meaningful sanctions does not drive the right behaviours."
  • "There is a need for stronger and more effective enforcement activity, backed up with sufficiently powerful sanctions for the few who do not follow the rules."
  • "The information flow and documented evidence provided by developers to building control bodies does not provide an adequate public record to ensure building safety throughout the life of the building."
  • "Consultation by building control bodies and by those commissioning or designing buildings should take place early in the process and fire and rescue advice should be fully taken into account."
  • "There is a need for building control bodies to do more to assure that fire safety information for a building is provided by the person completing the building work to the responsible person for the building in occupation. Given the importance of such information for ongoing maintenance and fire risk assessment, proof should be sought that it has been transferred."

 

Residents' voice and raising concerns

 

  • "The route for residents to escalate concerns is unclear and inadequate."
  • "Residents need to be reassured that an effective system is in place to maintain safety in their homes."

 

Quality assurance and products

 

  • "The system of product testing, marketing and quality assurance is not clear."
  • "Products must be properly tested and certified and there is a need to ensure oversight of the quality of installation work."
  • "The widespread use of desktop studies to assess equivalence of products and systems is not properly managed or controlled in terms of both the circumstances in which they can be used and the qualifications and experience of those undertaking them."
  • "The government should significantly restrict the use of desktop studies to approve changes to cladding and other systems to ensure that they are only used where appropriate and with sufficient, relevant test evidence."

 

 

Fire Protection Association Australia (FPA Australia) has consistently advocated for change and national harmonisation in relation to these aspects locally.

 

As previously communicated by FPA Australia, following the Building Ministers Forum and their discussions regarding compliance the Federal Minister for Industry appointed independent experts Professor Peter Shergold and Ms Bronwyn Weir to conduct an 'Assessment of the Effectiveness of Compliance and Enforcement Systems for the Building and Construction Industry across Australia'.

 

FPA Australia welcomed this appointment at the time and has since been consulted by these experts as a peak industry body to provide our views. Our written response submitted prior to access to the Hackitt Interim report stated that:

 

"FPA Australia asserts that the NCC and standards are definitely not the core root causes regarding a lack of compliance.

 

Our experience is that, overwhelmingly, the constant barrier to the successful and consistent application of construction requirements is a lack of education regarding roles and responsibilities, coupled with a lack of meaningful education regarding what is necessary to comply and enforcement regimes to ensure this occurs.

 

FPA Australia contends that despite the united effort of many industry and government stakeholders to develop the NCC and referenced standards to reflect appropriate construction requirements, confidence that these requirements will be consistently met remains low.

 

Governments must subscribe to the notion that simply referencing the NCC without also implementing consistent core administrative requirements regarding its application and enforcement, will perpetuate the current culture that is lacking in accountability and has financial and health and safety impacts locally and nationally.

 

If there was only one area of focus that could be immediately sought to pursue improvement, it should be seeking a commitment to develop a model NCC Administrative Code to harmonise expectations regarding the aspects identified in the terms of reference for this assessment."

 

FPA Australia is a willing participant in providing the leadership and seeking the kind of industry-government relationships that Dame Hackitt has identified as needed. The ongoing development of the BPAD and FPAS accreditation schemes and their pending recognition by government(s) is one very important example. Collectively we must do more, however, and that starts with mainstream acknowledgement from government(s) and industry leaders that more is required and our current approach is no longer acceptable.

 

Perhaps one of the most compelling aspects of the Grenfell tragedy is that an event of such magnitude in terms of fire size and life loss occurred in 2017 in a developed country like the UK. As so often happens, it has motivated political will to review and revise. 'Codify by catastrophe', as they say. In this case, it has also had international shockwaves. Prior to Grenfell, Australia experienced its own façade-driven fire at the Lacrosse building in Melbourne's Docklands. In what could be best described as a near miss in relation to loss of life (there were no fatalities, and there were sprinklers) it raised concerns but government was slow to act. Post Grenfell we now have government-appointed Cladding Taskforce's and some jurisdictions have introduced regulatory change. So change is occurring. But it must be united change.

 

Dame Hackitt's interim report could well be described as a ready manifesto for Australia to adapt and implement. It is a timely resource for our own independent experts to draw from in their assessment of our fragmented state and territory administrative adoption, implementation and enforcement of the NCC and Standards. We should be able to confidently answer the questions it raises and if not, act to rectify.

 

Following further industry consultation in the UK, Dame Hackitt is expected to complete a final report by April 2018. No doubt, this will also coincide with further findings regarding what happened at Grenfell and hopefully harness momentum for positive change. In the meantime, FPA Australia and other industry stakeholders need to support local efforts for reform and heed the advice Dame Hackitt has already provided to the UK industry:

 

"Stakeholders should prepare themselves for an early call to action to create a more effective regulatory system."

 

You can read the full Interim Report prepared by Dame Hackett and Terms of Reference for the review at www.gov.uk/government/publications.


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