In the wake of the Grenfell fire disaster, property managers have become more vigilant at instructing their maintenance firms to carry out fire risk assessments (FRAs), however, there is a dangerous misconception that this is sufficient to meet requirements. It isn’t enough.
The biggest problem with FRAs is that the majority of them aren’t carried out by a specialist and accredited suppliers as they typically only look at a limited level of what needs to be considered. This isn’t a criticism of those undertaking FRAs, but of the rule-makers who allow it to happen.
In my opinion, there needs to be further dialogue and cooperation between property management companies, fire risk assessors, specialist and accredited suppliers.
Fire risk assessment is the starting point, not the solution
Don’t get me wrong, FRA’s have their place in the process of building maintenance, but instead of being seen as the solution to the problem, they need to be seen as a sensible starting point on which to put together specialist inspections and a carefully thought through planned preventative maintenance (PPM) programme. As they stand, the reports that come out of most FRAs are too generalist and often only focus on broad issues. They cannot be viewed as an overriding document of what needs to be addressed to properly make a building safe because there are often too many gaps. Many such reports only highlight where potential problems are, rather than advising on what needs to be done to fix the problems. At Nirvana, I have come across situations where property managers only want items addressed, which have been highlighted on the FRA rather than addressing and budgeting for the wider issues found following more specialist and specific inspections.
This cannot be the way we operate in our industry.
Once an FRA has been carried out, it then requires a specialist to come in and look deeper at the problems raised and put forward practical solutions, which may go beyond those items highlighted in the FRA. This stage often makes for uncomfortable conversations between managing agents and their specialist suppliers because almost always the issues highlighted in the FRA are just the tip of the iceberg.
Examples of fire safety works which should be done by specialists
Our experience shows that some areas don’t get fully picked up by an FRA, but that should form part of a fire safety planned preventative maintenance strategy. These include:
Pre-Grenfell fire doors weren’t really on the agenda as a major issue, as long as they were in place, then that was okay. They were part of the passive system, so considered a minor concern or in some cases not aware they existed. Sadly, this has meant that in almost every block, fire doors are not all up to standard. Fire doors need regular adjustments to keep them in a state where they will do the job needed of them should a fire break out. Ideally, they should be inspected every six months and adjusted as necessary each time.
Internal wall penetrations
Internal walls are constantly being hacked at, either by apartment owners or phone and television installation contractors. Every time a wall is drilled through, it is creating a penetration through which fire can quickly spread from room to room. These penetrations need filling by someone who knows what they are doing and not by a handyman or general builder.
Prioritise fire safety works with a planned preventative maintenance strategy
It is only when you dig a bit deeper that you unearth non-compliant fire doors, breaches in the compartmentalisation within the riser cupboards on upper floors and a lack of evidence of records being logged properly. Suddenly a property manager can see costs of rectifying fire safety issues spiralling before their eyes. This can be daunting and it’s no surprise that their initial instinct is to put their heads in the sand because the money isn’t always there to do all the work required at once.
This is when property managers need to rely on their specialist suppliers to ease the panic and work with the client and leaseholder, if necessary, to prioritise the works and address the required work in stages. A planned preventative maintenance strategy can be drawn up at this stage, taking into account what work has to be carried out immediately and what can be scheduled in and budgeted for at a later date. When it comes to meeting regulations and passing inspections, this plan can be vital as it demonstrates that there is a considered strategy in place.
A good planned preventative maintenance strategy will save leaseholders' money
From a financial perspective, it is almost always cheaper to undertake the work needed to maintain and prevent a problem, than it is to fix it once it is too late.
Most buildings will have a similar life cycle of works that are needed over a similar period of time. Since most property managers look after more than one property, if they can coordinate planned preventative maintenance plans across a portfolio they can save time and money.
It is amazing how many times we come across a managing agent where each property manager has his or her relationships with specialist suppliers and smaller contractors that they instruct on a building by building basis. Taking a more holistic approach to suppliers and the regular, planned works as a business means that they can be appointed on multiple jobs across the entire portfolio, giving the agent the power to negotiate more competitive fees for their leaseholders.
Our industry has suffered from a serious lack of trust and every time a new incident of a tower block fire hits the headlines, it gets dented further. Taking the right measures to fully understand the risks a building faces and putting in place the strategy to address these risks before they become a problem is a good way to start earning that trust back.
We would all much rather be known as the person who planned to prevent a problem, than the one who didn’t.
For more on the topic of health & safety risk assessments, download this FREE Quick Guide for Block Managers: Getting Risk Assessments Right.