The Nexus of Fire Safety and Digitalisation: Advancing Construction Practices Post-Grenfell

In recent years there have been two clear factors influencing fire safety in the construction industry: legislative and regulatory changes; and growing industry appetite for digitalisation.

In her address at the Construction Leaders’ Summit in 2020, Dame Judith Hackitt spoke of the need for both a technical and cultural change in the construction sector’s approach to fire safety. Updated regulation and the widespread embrace of digitisation are certainly two influences well-placed to deliver these much-needed changes.

These driving forces are heavily intertwined. More prescriptive regulation provides a sense of market certainty – this certainty then helps to creates an environment more receptive to new processes (i.e., digitalisation).

The impetus for new legislation comes largely from the immense outrage and sadness surrounding the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017. From this came a powerful and undeniable mandate from the public to reform fire safety in the built environment. Of course, Grenfell remains a tragedy without resolution; questions persist around the removal of hazardous building cladding, and many homeowners are still struggling to secure mortgages, or re-mortgages, for their properties. Soon after Grenfell we saw the recommendations made by the Hackitt Report of 2018 – most notably, the drive to digitise fire safety procedures and make building operators more accountable, in line with a safer and fairer society. It is against this backdrop that all fire safety discussions now take place, with each and every stakeholder acutely aware of what can happen if safety is not prioritised.

Fire safety covers every inch of the built environment. It is only right that we would want to be as effective as possible in our treatment of it. This is why we must think seriously about future-proofing the industry. Dame Hackitt emphasises in the Hackitt Report that change is required in order to ‘support the delivery of buildings that are safe, both now and in the future.’ With so much at stake, we must favour long-term solutions over quick fixes.

One way to achieve this is, undoubtedly, bringing a legal imperative to the discussion. The renewed legal incentive to improve fire safety standards will be instrumental, particularly with the Building Safety Bill (BSB) expected to be brought to fruition later this year. With it will come the requirement for accountable persons and building safety managers to implement digital systems for processes such as record keeping and information monitoring and sharing for high rise residential buildings (HRRBs). The Bill has been hailed by many as the most important development in building fire safety in 40 years, and for good reason.

The benefits of digitalisation are apparent, both in a commercial and a public-safety sense. The enabling of real-time monitoring will certainly empower those in charge of fire safety to make informed decisions and take vital action. Additionally, as the size of estates grow, paper-based systems become more inefficient – digitalisation provides an effective means of managing large estates. The digitisation of fire safety processes also eliminates the often-critical issue of data loss during information handovers and helps to eradicate the persistent ‘fragmentation’ often referred to in the Hackitt report. Comprehensive, rigorously maintained and accessible digital records can combat these inconsistencies in the fire safety record, as demonstrated by the upcoming requirement for a Fire and Emergency File and digital record.

But perhaps most convincing of all for some in the industry will be the legal implications of inaction or failure to comply with new requirements (i.e., the prospect of severe fines), which will provide a commercial incentive to upgrade and uphold improved fire safety standards. When the moral imperative for change is complemented by a clear commercial advantage, we can begin to look forward to mass adoption and a real industry shift.

A key recommendation from Dame Hackitt’s report was, of course, the introduction of a Golden Thread of information; this thread is, in itself, a digital record of everything associated with the lifecycle of particularly high-risk buildings – all of its related processes, materials, decisions, and usage. Respecting – and embracing – the direction of these changes will certainly help to futureproof the businesses of those operating in the construction sector. These changes also provide the UK with the opportunity to be world-leading in its approach to fire safety, setting the tone for other nations to take pre-emptive action (and avoid their own tragedies).

For all of these reasons, we need digital systems in construction industry fire safety to proliferate. Continued digital innovation in fire safety is not accidental – there are clear motivations behind it, not least the convenience and precision it offers.

The embrace of digital systems in the construction industry is occurring, albeit patchily There has been a clear appetite for digitalisation across many related industries, including the insurance sector, which has long pushed for reform that extends even beyond the BSB.

As with legislative changes, digitalisation, too, offers financial advantages. Indeed, the Hackitt Report, points to research from the USA which suggests that the maintaining of a digital record can bring net savings in the region of five percent in the costs of the construction of new-build projects.

Paper-based systems are simply no longer the most effective option. We now have a variety of storage solutions currently in use, ranging from the more pedestrian, like SharePoint, to the more-specialised, such as certain BIM software. Likewise, many initiatives exist to assist the construction industry in navigating the changing regulatory landscape such as: D-Com and the Centre for Digital Built Britain.

But the take-up of these admirable systems has been inconsistent so far. Certainly, many businesses will be thinking carefully about their adoption of these services, which will largely be informed by when, and how strongly, the Building Safety Bill is enforced.

We must also be careful not to overlook that, as with paper-based systems, the information that is available to users will only be as useful, informative and as good quality as the information that is fed into the system. For this reason, the efficacy of fire safety processes as a whole must be considered in order to maximise to the protection of property and the public, which is reflected in the BSB.

Ultimately, and fortunately, fire safety is advancing rapidly due to the push and pull factors identified in this paper. Wholesale success, however, requires buy-in from all of the parties involved throughout the building lifecycle. We are certainly on the right track: incoming legislative changes should have a great contribution to raising industry appetite for digitalisation, and in establishing improved and futureproofed industry standards.

Now, in the post-Grenfell era, it is a critical time for the introduction of meaningful legislation and for the serious digital overhauling of practices. At the heart of both should be the protection of the built environment and, crucially, human life.

John Noone is Co-Founder & CEO at Joule Group, a leading independent firm of UK-based fire safety designers, engineers, consultants and technology solutions specialists. Joule’s proprietary real time fire safety compliance and monitoring software, TFS-Compliance is the leading digital platform for the active management of all types of buildings in the use phase of their life cycle.
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