Fire Safety in Buildings – post Grenfell

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In the wake of the publication of the first report into the Grenfell disaster, there’s been lots of talk about how Irish building safety regulations stack up. The Building Control (Amendment) Regulations 2014 was undoubtedly a big improvement in what went before but there are aspects of this that still need critical evaluation.

The new regulations require that an Assigned Certifier (either a registered architect, chartered engineer or chartered surveyor) declare that a new building, upon completion, meets the Building Regulations as set out in the Fire Safety Certificate application process to the local authority. A new Technical Guidance D.

Surprisingly, the Assigner Certifier role had not been in place before 2014 and a litany of Celtic Tiger buildings have been shown to fall short of regulations (usually after an incident, e.g Priory Hall, Liffey Boat Quay). An ever- growing legacy of fire legislation breaches are being uncovered that relate to this period of poor regulation and there are currently many extraordinary general meetings being called where apartment owners are being notified of hefty fees required to address breaches in Fire Safety Certificates. For obvious reasons many of these are being kept under the radar as owners want to address issues without drawing attention to deficiencies that could results in a longer-term negative impact on property values. Of course, many owners are equally, if not more, motivated by a duty of care to themselves, their families or their tenants.

In the new system, the Assigned Certifiers need to receive a suite of signed Ancillary Certificates from those engaged in commissioning/specialist aspects of the building related to fire safety. These ancillary certificates support the determination of compliance of the Assigned Certifier’s final signature.

It is best practice that an Assigned Certifier makes a determination as to the competence of those signing these ancillary certificates. Apart from structural building design, which attempts to prevent the spread of fire, two key building requirements are
(i) the automatic detection of fire and alerting occupants  (Fire Alarms)
(ii) visual assistance and direction finding with evacuation in case of power failure (Emergency Lighting)

Both are requirements in the building regulations. Unfortunately there seems to be no standardised list of ancillary certificates, so in one instance an Emergency Lighting Commissioning Certificate may be considered one but in another instance Fire Alarm and Emergency Lighting Certificates could fall under the umbrella of an Electrical Installation Certificate and so not be separately handed over to the Assigned Certifier.

Currently there are no restrictions on who can design or commission fire alarms other than a line in the Fire National Alarm Standard (I.S.3218) which states that it should be performed by a competent person. Qualifications are a very helpful assistance in supporting and allowing practitioners to demonstrate their competence and, also in assisting assigned Certifiers in selecting competent Practitioners. There are two QQI Special Purpose awards in place for Emergency Lighting Systems (6S0953 and 6S0955) and these awards along with new standards (I.S3217) have played a significant role in improving the standard of work being completed in the sector. There is no legal requirement for practitioners to attend these courses, however they have become recognised as a way of assisting in the determination of competence (along with experience in the field). There are now over 1,100 qualified practitioners on the qualifications register hosted by Technotraining.

In relation to Fire Alarm Designers and Commissioners, there is undoubtedly now room for assessed and quality approved awards which would lead to a greater level of certainty regarding determination of competence.