Author(s): Don Bliss. Published on March 1, 2018.

Safety, Defined

Creating a training program for life safety professionals around the world

The quote was blunt: “This incident should not have happened in our country in the 21st century.”

It came from the preliminary report, released in December, which reviewed the United Kingdom’s building regulations and fire safety practices after last summer’s Grenfell Tower fire in London. The blaze killed 71 people.

The report, commissioned by the government, identified failings in the UK’s processes for establishing and maintaining safety in buildings, specifically in high-rise and complex occupancies. Among other findings, the report’s authors determined that current regulations and guidance in the UK are complex and unclear; the clarity of roles and responsibilities of those involved in building construction and renovation is poor; means of assessing and ensuring the competency of key people throughout the system is inadequate; and the processes for compliance, enforcement, and sanctions are weak.

Unfortunately, the report’s findings could apply to any number of catastrophic fires that occur throughout the world. In my travels for NFPA, I’ve encountered many examples of problems that mirror or amplify the UK experience, issues ranging from government corruption to societies where a safety culture is utterly absent. In some places, the fire service may not have the authority to conduct inspections or review construction plans, or they may not be staffed adequately to perform these functions. Adopted codes and standards, if they exist, may be out of date or are ignored. Engineers and architects may lack expertise in fire protection principles, and there may not be a pool of skilled technicians to install and maintain fire protection systems. I’m often asked by authorities having jurisdiction, government officials, and design professionals in these countries how they can establish a more effective system of fire safety oversight and compliance. They want to know what steps they can take to replicate the experience in the United States.

To help provide a comprehensive answer, NFPA has developed a framework that describes the components of the ideal fire and life safety ecosystem and their interdependencies. We have found that there must be effective public policy and a strong regulatory infrastructure that includes the most up-to-date codes and standards. Skilled professionals must be able to apply the code during the design, construction, and operation of the building. The public and policymakers must be educated about the dangers posed by fire and other hazards to make informed decisions about acceptable risk. The absence of any component can result in the types of cascading failures that occurred at Grenfell Tower.

This framework is being developed into a training program that we will soon offer to life safety professionals around the world, and NFPA initiatives are already underway to help set jurisdictions on the right course. Bangladesh, with the assistance of NFPA, the University of Maryland, and others, is working to overcome the lack of trained design professionals and fire safety system installers by establishing university-sponsored education and training programs. Ethiopia, with the help of NFPA and the World Bank, has identified gaps in its building and fire code enforcement system. São Paulo, Brazil, has updated its fire code with extracts and references to NFPA standards. In the United Arab Emirates, Civil Defense officials depend upon NFPA to provide training for their code enforcement personnel and for private-sector designers, builders, and building managers.

The findings and recommendations of the ongoing Grenfell reviews are a wake-up call to public policymakers around the world to take stock of their own regulations and safety ecosystems. Cutting corners solely to save money or to satisfy special interests simply increases the frequency and severity of catastrophic fires. We can do better.

DONALD BLISS is vice president of Field Operations for NFPA.