Challenges to fire risk management

  • At a recent Zurich Municipal event, customers discussed some of the latest threats and opportunities facing their organisations
  • Some are experiencing challenges preventing them from achieving fire risk management objectives
  • We take a closer look at some of these challenges - from dealing with third parties to planning for difficult scenarios

Fire risk management is at the forefront of many of our customers’ minds following the tragic events at Grenfell Tower in June 2017.

During our latest series of customer forums, public and voluntary organisations agreed that the Grenfell Tower disaster had renewed and refocussed their efforts towards successfully managing fire risk.

However, while sharing the positive improvements they were making, many also highlighted the various challenges they still face in achieving their fire risk management objectives. 

As strong as our weakest link

At our recent London customer forum, attendees heard how an error involving hot work had led to the loss of an entire residential block for one organisation.

Despite this organisation’s generally positive approach to fire risk management, one person’s failure to follow the formal hot work procedures had sparked a fire that spread throughout the entire property.

Many customers at the event were concerned about the potential for similar scenarios, recognising that their risk management was only as strong as its weakest link.

A challenge shared by many was how to ensure risk management procedures were being properly adopted and followed across their organisation.

“There has always been a noticeable difference between management and front-line staff’s focus on reducing risk,” explained one representative of a London university.

“One thing we have always struggled with is getting everyone’s buy-in and ensuring that the organisation as a whole, practises what we preach.”

A customer from a local authority shared similar difficulties when trying to avoid the perils of underinsurance: “We haven’t had our sums insured set via professional valuation in more than a decade. Instead we’ve just been relying on the annual index-linked uplifts.

“It’s not a question of cost, but a lack of appreciation of the impact underinsurance could have if we suffered a major fire. It is something I’m keen to change, but it can be challenging to get key personnel to see things from my perspective.”

Managing the actions of third parties

In addition to managing the actions of their staff, customers were also finding it difficult to control the actions of third parties, including external stakeholder groups such as tenants, students and tradesmen.

Representatives from the social housing sector spoke in particular about the rate of claims caused by the actions of residents – such as the use of candles or electrical appliances – and of how difficult they found it to encourage safer use of their properties.

“Awareness is a big challenge for us. We are good internally, but it can sometimes seem impossible to instil the same principles in others outside of our organisation, especially tenants,” said one housing association employee.

A risk officer at a London university faced similar challenges: “We often struggle to get everyone involved in our building projects to see fire risk from our point of view.

“With multiple organisations involved, we not only have to bring our main contractor around to our way of thinking, but also architects and subcontractors. It is no easy task.”

Planning for difficult scenarios

While reducing the likelihood of fire is paramount, some risk will remain. Planning how you will respond to potential loss scenarios – via a formal business continuity plan (BCP), or similar – is therefore vital.

While customers we spoke with did have formal BCPs, some were struggling to decide how best to approach particular scenarios.

“We are not sure how our responses should differ when large groups of people are involved – for example, if evacuating a lecture theatre full of students as opposed to a small classroom,” said one university employee.

“Similarly, we’ve recognised that evacuating during a false alarm can actually create more risks. We have questioned whether it would be beneficial to have a short delay to our alarms, but are not sure whether this is actually a good idea, or how best to approach it.”

While it was evident from our recent forums that customers have given careful consideration to the potential fire risks they could face, it was also clear that many still have concerns about how they can safely manage the full range of risks they face.

How should organisations respond to these challenges?

While the challenges outlined above are diverse, the following tips are applicable to all types of fire risk.

  1. Ensure risk management is a priority at board level. Risk managers can support this process by explaining how challenges such as underinsurance could impact on their organisation’s strategic priorities. Boards or governing bodies should be briefed around hotworks and the pertinent risks.
  2. Ensure key risk management messages filter through to every level of your organisation. Consider what mechanisms you have in place to achieve this, e.g. communication channels, training etc, and how engagement with these mechanisms will be monitored.
  3. Vet third parties carefully. When engaging a new contractor, for example, check that they have adequate public liability insurance. Ask to see examples of previous work, and membership of relevant professional bodies. Ask about their procedures for managing subcontractors. Once you have chosen a contractor, ensure a risk assessment for the work has been conducted, and that you have established procedures for regular monitoring of the project.