Fire regulations will catch companies unaware

Experts warn managers are in the firing line for fines as inspectors prepare to test fire safety compliance…

New fire safety rules that came into effect in October have shifted the onus for compliance from businesses onto individuals.

Those deemed ‘responsible’ for their company’s premises will soon be approached by inspectors checking they are in accordance with the law.

Despite the fact these individuals may have no safety knowledge or qualifications; they are now legally obliged to ensure all fire safety measures have been met.

However, Nick Warner, chief fire technology officer for fire risk company Risc Online, says few are prepared for an audit.

“With effect from 1 October, the Regulatory Reform Fire Safety Order (RRO) requires all business to carryout a Fire Risk Assessment (FRA), and if more than five persons are employed, a written report is required,” he explains.

“While larger companies were largely aware of the requirements, about 75 per cent of the SMEs we’ve spoken to were unaware of the changes. Some had even contacted Trading Standards thinking letters about the new fire rules were a scam.”

According to Nick, colleagues at local authority fire brigades have told him inspectors are about to begin visiting premises they feel present the highest risk to the public.

“These are most likely to be areas falling under the category of ‘Sleeping Risks’, like hotels and boarding houses, nursing and residential homes,” he says.

To comply with the law, ‘responsible’ persons must work through a weighty 140-page tome from the government, explaining their obligations, before making an assessment.

But doing the assessment personally carries risks of its own. To the untrained eye, potential hazards may well be overlooked.

And although guides are being produced to help people understand the new law, most are still likely to need professional advice.

Ignore the new fire regulations, and you could face a whacking £20,000 fine or two years in prison.

Doris Huang, from Risc Online (www.risconline.co.uk), says using her online risk assessment will mean managers can rest assured they will not be liable for fines.

“The government expects busy business leaders to digest a 146-page guide about the changes before assessing their own risk,” she explains.

“But the complexity of the law means few will get it right, and they will then be liable to pay a penalty.”

Huang’s self-assessment service is linked to the law itself.

One of her clients, Es Sailh, a tailor, manages an open plan office in east London with five staff.

He said he didn’t feel he should have to pay huge amounts for an assessor due to the small size of his operation.

"Risc Online's fee was much more reasonable than other quotes I'd had, and their system was easy to use but comprehensive. Now I don't have to worry about not doing the fire risk assessment correctly".

Alan Goldman, an Essex dentist, says doing the Risc Online fire risk assessment was easier than trying to figure out himself.

"If I had to do it on my own without the guidance of the software, I wouldn’t know where to start,” he says.

“I have many electrical tools which require assessment, but the online guide meant I was able to complete the fire risk assessment in a relatively short time and comply with the regulations correctly."

Adam James used the online service because he didn’t want the hassle of getting an assessor in.

"The easy-to-understand report it gave me contained an audit and easy to follow action plan to helped reduce my fire risks," he says.

Bigger companies that plan events, such as the Royal Windsor Horse Show, use Risc Online's parent company, Technifire, to audit their fire risk in person.

Charles Barlow, Operations Director, says TechniFire’s experts have “planned fire risk over the whole site, bringing the show into compliance and simplifying planning operations.”

Under the previous fire rules, once a building owner had submitted an application for a fire certificate (a process which could take up to two years), the onus rested on someone else's shoulders.

And fire certificates, previously required under the Fire Precautions Act 1971 for defined buildings, are no longer applicable.

The new Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 was approved by Parliament in June 2005, and came into force on October 1 2006.

Nationally, there were 3,401 fires in industrial premises in 2003, resulting in three deaths and 153 casualties.

On average, each fire in an industrial premises costs £60,100. Records, filing systems, stock and equipment can all literally go up in smoke.

According to statistics from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the number of fires is falling, but the overall financial consequences are becoming more serious.

In 2005, property loss alone totalled almost £800m.