BY TIM COPLEY FIRE ENGINEER
When asked “what is a fire engineer?” 9 out of 10 people (with one of them being a fire engineer) will likely shrug and answer “I dunno, a person who engineers fires?”
The truth is, even if you happen to know what a fire engineer is you probably don’t know what a fire engineer can fully offer you. The primary objective of a fire engineers role is life safety, to ensure that in the event of a fire within a building or place of public assembly the occupants can easily, and without harm, evacuate to a place of ultimate safety.
New buildings of course are required to meet current fire safety standards of the Building Code. The Code requires that a fire engineer assess the buildings plans and designs to ensure they meet current fire safety standards and that the building is safe for purpose. Alterations to existing buildings which pass through the building consent process are also required to be upgraded to, or are to ‘as near as reasonably practicable’ to, the current standards of the Building Code as outlined in Section 112 of the Building Act 2004. Again this involves a fire engineer carrying out an assessment of the building and preparing a Fire Report outlining all areas relating to fire safety which may require upgrading as part of the alteration works.
However there is a hole. Existing buildings that remain unaltered or have not yet passed through the building consent process can remain in a time-warp for years before they are “altered” and therefore reassessed for compliance with current standards. During this time the building could be considered not fit for purpose or even dangerous to building occupants.
In October 2006 the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 was introduced into England and Wales to tackle this very issue of non-compliant buildings. The Order placed the responsibility on individuals within an organisation (the “responsible person”) to carry out risk assessments to identify, manage and reduce the risk of fire. This was done in the form of a Fire Risk Assessment.
Fire Risk Assessments became mandatory and applicable to all business premises that employed 5 or more people. As a result most buildings across England and Wales were assessed for compliance against the current Building Regulations, Codes and Standards and consequently were upgraded where necessary to improve life safety. Buildings and workplaces became safer and workplace fires were reduced.
As Fire Risk Assessments are now mandatory in the UK, failure to complete one, or failure to act upon findings of a Fire Risk Assessment, can carry certain penalties. These penalties range from small fines in the low hundreds to larger fines of over many thousands of pounds and even carry jail time. If a death were to occur on the premises and it was proven that the building was non-compliant with the regulations then the Corporate Manslaughter and/or Corporate Homicide Act 2007 could apply, carrying with it a much longer jail sentence. This system is something I believe in time will come to New Zealand and perhaps in the not too distant future.
Now as it stands Fire Risk Assessments within New Zealand do exist but are not mandatory, and are usually only carried out by fire engineers for insurance companies for insurance purposes. As I have stated, I believe this will change in the near future. The Health and Safety Reform Bill is coming into effect later this year and with it the shift of responsibility to the Person Conducting a Business or Undertaking (PCBU) to maintain a safe work environment. This will mean every work place should have adequate fire systems and egress routes as well as fire and evacuation training and should cover all other health and safety issues for all members of staff.
If you are a PCBU, being the person responsible and the person accountable, have you shown your due diligence by ensuring your building is safe from fire? If a person gets injured or heaven forbid dies in your building due to a fire related incident are you confident that you have done all that you can to make your building safe? You may perhaps consider it unfair that you are expected to know if your building is non-compliant, unless you yourself are a fire engineer, but a court of law may not be of the same opinion. You may well be able to apply common-sense when looking at your building and thinking yes or no to whether or not it is safe in the event of a fire but even common-sense is not enough if you are unaware of legislation requirements and the remedial options available. Even a new building with all the bells and whistles may be vulnerable to the dangers of fire if incorrectly managed.
Fire Risk Assessments highlight possible fire hazards or dangerous situations that may occur within a building as well as whether or not a building is compliant and/or fit for purpose. The document also creates a legal requisite for the responsible person, or PCBU, to safeguard the building and to ensure it remains safe from the dangers of fire.
Nobody wants to have someone injure themselves or die within their building or workplace. Having the comfort of knowing you have done everything reasonably practicable to make sure the place is as safe as possible, and that all liability lies elsewhere, is invaluable and having a Fire Risk Assessment done on your building goes a long way to providing this.
Food for thought… is consciously leaving a building in a doubtful state as to whether it is safe or unsafe from the dangers of fire considered negligent? Well that is for the courts to decide, but the question is, do you really want to take that risk? The aim of this article is not to scare anyone into getting a Fire Risk Assessment done on their building but to raise awareness of the existing gaps in New Zealand fire safety and how the for forthcoming Health and Safety Reform Bill may affect them in terms of responsibility and accountability. Who is ultimately responsible? I guess time will tell.