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Fire in the pipeline

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The joint Home Office/Scottish Office consultation paper, Fire Legislation for the Future, addressed what is frankly admitted to be a legislative mess on general fire safety. 'Fire safety provision is scattered among over 60 pieces of legislation. It is sometimes inconsistent and can be difficult even for fire safety professionals to understand. For the lay person who has to comply with the legislation it can be bewildering.'

Part of this picture has been a change in tenor of legislation over the years, from the specific duty to apply for and receive certification under the Fire Precautions Act 1971 (fpa) to a general duty of care as sections of the Health & Safety at Work etc Act (hswa) are being implemented. Another thread is differences in legislation between England & Wales and Scotland.

The consultation paper is focused on the overall shape of 'a radical overhaul of the existing fire safety laws'. It does not contain specific draft legislation. The broad proposal is for one core piece of legislation, separate from the hswa, with a 'responsible person' taking on a general duty of care for fire precautions in a particular building. The responsible person would make a risk assessment and fire precautions plan, kept under continuing review.

Changing existing legislation

The main focus for criticism is the fpa, on three counts:

it is too prescriptive, binding in detail, not allowing the owner or occupier to make a risk assessment and freely exercise his general duty to provide safe working conditions

the fpa overlaps with other legislation

fire authorities are under no duty to promote fire safety in the community by education, to prevent as well as to cure.

Some aspects of a model for improved legislation exist in the Fire Precautions (Workplace) Regulations 1997. Broadly, this regulates all buildings, except individual dwellings, that are not covered by the fpa. It embodies a duty of care and requires risk assessment.

Having a separate piece of fire legislation should not cut off fire from other workplace concerns though. With respect to health and safety generally, 'the ec Framework Directive - that employers should develop a coherent overall risk prevention policy - would apply'. One difference in fire legislation would be to focus on all occupants, rather than the hswa bias towards employees.

The new regime

While fire precautions standards would be the same in all buildings, most buildings would require no more than some form of certification. Only in high-risk buildings would a detailed validation of the risk assessment and action plan be normal. This should enable fire authorities to target more of their resources on high-risk buildings.

High-risk buildings could include those where people may be asleep when fire breaks out, such as hotels, buildings with many occupants, such as shopping centres and places of entertainment, and some houses in multiple occupation. While factories, offices and shops now fall within strict control procedures, perhaps only 25 per cent of them would fall into the high-risk category in future. Some low-risk buildings could be made exempt from the legislation altogether.

Fire certification of individual homes is accepted to be impractical, despite their being the places of most frequent fire injuries and deaths. The only action proposed affecting individual homes is to develop a specific duty for fire authorities to undertake more education of the public.

Rationalising legislation

The separation of building control and fire authorities should continue, but with designers only dealing directly with building control officers. A completion certificate might be issued on building completion signifying formal transfer of control from building control to fire authority.

Building Regulations may be extended to include fire detection and warning systems, and firefighting installations.

Under the 'statutory bar' a building built to then-current Building Regulations cannot be required to be upgraded under the fpa. Under the hswa, building upgrading can at least be required where building regulations have subsequently been upgraded. The spirit of the new regime is that fire precautions should be continually reviewed and up to date. The proposal is to remove the statutory bar altogether. (The Fire Precautions (Workplace) Regulations 1997 has no statutory bar.)

The Fire Precautions (Workplace) Regulations 1997 should be repealed and their relevant provisions incorporated in the one major piece of fire precautions legislation. As far as possible this major legislation should also leave health and safety legislation with responsibility only for fire precautions of industrial processes, not of places of work.

Licensing and registration authorities, say for pubs and cinemas, now get involved in fire precautions, but should not. The responsible person, it is felt, should set the fire agenda, which is then certified or validated as necessary.

Houses in multiple occupation are increasingly regulated by new local authority schemes under powers introduced in March 1997. The consultation paper questions whether this should go on or whether these should be brought under the same control as proposed for the rest of fire safety regulation.

For Scotland the pattern is seen largely as that for England & Wales.

A more performance-based, duty of care system will require detailed guidance documentation, probably non-statutory.

Overall, the Home Office will digest feedback on this consultation paper before drafting any legislation, also for consultation. No specific timetable is proposed.

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