FIRE 2021 CONFERENCE: LEARNING LESSONS, SHAPING THE FUTURE

24 Jan 2022

The morning of 9 November saw over 400 delegates from across the fire sector and beyond gather both online and in person at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre in Westminster for a day of thought leadership and cutting edge debate from key industry figures. The event was jointly organised by the FPA, the Institution of Fire Engineers (IFE), and the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC).

The morning sessions

The conference began with an address from broadcaster Aasmah Mir, setting the tone for the day with the first of many variations on a theme of collaboration, and how “the time for being separate, and for being in our own tribes has passed.” Having just returned from COP26, this message was underscored by the wider implications of the struggles in our current climate, which extends beyond just the remit of fire safety, but highlights the importance of the work we all do as we play our part to make the world better and safer.



Steve Hamm, CEO of IFE followed with a welcome on behalf of the organisers, celebrating the fact that the event was able to take place in person with restrictions having eased, and paid his respects to the late M.P. Sir David Amess and Paul Fuller, both of whom we lost this year. The following quote of Paul’s was highlighted in Steve’s slides, which is a pertinent and poignant reminder of what values we each should hold in the sector:

“What matters is trying to do the right thing. Sometimes the right thing isn’t the popular thing, or the easiest thing. But I think, having the ability to see things how they truly are and the courage to make them how they ought to be is the right thing.” Paul Fuller, 1960-2021.

A plenary by the Minister of State for Building Safety and Fire, Lord Stephen Greenhalgh was next, diving into the legislative changes that the Building Safety Bill will bring, along with the recommendations from the Grenfell Tower Inquiry. Lord Greenhalgh also acknowledged that “the government has a job to do in addressing the regulatory system failure,” and made “a clarion call for proportionality. We continue to challenge the industry on this and need your help.”

The New Structure, a plenary on behalf of the chief inspector of buildings by Tim Galloway, deputy director of the HSE followed: “We need a real step change in attitude, behaviour, culture, and performance across the whole process of designing, constructing, maintaining, and managing the safety of and living in higher risk buildings.”

Hayley Robinson, group chief underwriting officer at Zurich then gave a talk on collaboration, also referencing COP26: “The built environment makes up 34% of our CO2 emissions. [However,] low carbon doesn’t automatically mean low risk.”

Next came Changing Leadership and Culture by Amanda Long, CEO, Building a Safer Future Charter, discussing work following Dame Judith Hackitt’s recommendations resulting from her investigations into Grenfell. “Safer buildings and safer homes require a shift in culture… building safety must be the primary concern, around which all others are built.”

Jonathan O’Neill OBE, managing director at the FPA wrapped up the first portion of the day on a high note, and with a call to action, saying: “What I’ve heard this morning is inspirational. We need to stop living in silos. If we act together, we’re so strong as a group.”

After a short break, proceedings resumed with a panel debate on Modern Methods of Construction, between Dr Jim Glockling, technical director at the FPA; Nick Mead, champion for MMC at the Construction Industry Council; and Dave Green, senior fire engineer with the NFCC. The panel went about demystifying aspects of MMC and the implications for fire risks and insurers – as Nick pointed out, “MMC is not just new technology – it’s also using existing technology in a smarter way.” Looking forward, Dr Jim Glockling set out his vision for the near future: “My wish for the next five years is to avoid another cladding-type scandal, but I don’t see it happening. Not enough is being done.”

Delegates then had a choice of three workshops each over the next three sessions. The first was hosted by the Fire Sector Federation (FSF): Transforming Culture and Competency to Improve Fire Safety, featuring Jon Vanstone, chairman of Interim Industry Competence Committee; Dennis Davis, executive director at FSF, and Gill Kernick, senior consultant in cultural transformation, and ex-Grenfell resident. Dennis emphasised the anxiety in the sector before Grenfell, saying “we expected a catastrophic failure… because building regulations were lagging so far behind.” You could have heard a pin drop when Gill called on attendees to widen the remit of voices they hear from, asking a simple but affecting question: “who isn’t here?” Far from finger-wagging however, Gill gave a clear mantra for the oft-stated need for change: “You can’t have systemic or cultural change without disrupting the status quo.”

The NFCC’s Building Risk Review Progress and Future Plans workshop with Mark Cottell, head of the NFCC’s building safety team and Jake Louth, policy and communications officer at the NFCC took a look at the work happening in the Building Risk Review, detailing the parliamentary commitment to inspect or review all high-rise residential buildings by the end of 2021, for a total of 12,753 buildings in scope initially.

The third workshop of this session was delivered by Neil Gibbins, Cross-UK fire safety lead who highlighted the importance of collaborating to share lessons learned concurrently, and discussed the work CROSS is doing to enable this within the sector.

After a lunch break, sessions resumed with another choice of three workshops. The first, Simultaneous Evacuation Guidance by the NFCC’s Nick Coombe (deputy head of the protection policy and reform unit) and Richard Clark (fire engineer), looked at guidance to support a temporary change to a simultaneous evacuation strategy in purpose-built blocks of flats, and how the NFCC led a group of fire safety professionals to write national guidance.

The IFE gave their technical update with discussion from Peter Wilkinson, technical director at IFE; Simon Bird, fixed firefighting systems special interest group; Jason Hill, industrial fire and risk special interest group; Steve Emery, heritage special interest group; and Jim Mann, fire investigation special interest group.

Jonathan O’Neill OBE chaired the future of certification – how can we trust the tests? workshop with Chris Hasbrook, VP of UL; Douglas Barnett, director of mid-market and customer risk management at AXA; Sir Ken Knight, Expert Panel Chair; and Paul Morrell, co-chair of the review of the system for testing building products. Douglas spoke at length about third party certification: “One thing we need going forward is more visibility on testing… if we don’t trust it, what do we have left? Where do we go?” Perhaps Paul however summed up the sentiment of panel and the need for transparency and change, saying “good people have no fear of regulation.”

The last trio of sessions began with a workshop on procurement by Bernie Higgins and Jon Pagan of the Fire Industry Association (FIA), looking at integrity and sustainability. The panel discussed the race to the bottom inherent in a culture driven by cost, and what can be done to amend this going forward.

Ron Dobson, former London Fire Brigade (LFB) commissioner addressed delegates with a breakdown of the ethics committee for the IFE, stressing the importance of acting ethically in both public and professional life. Ron looked at the difference between what constitutes ethics against legality, and how the ethics committee itself is run.

The last workshop: An International Tall Building Fire Case Study was delivered by Peter Stephenson, the IFE’s UAE representative. Peter looked at tall buildings from a middle eastern perspective, as well as local codes and practices around them, means of escape, fire protection systems, firefighting and emergency response, as well as a case study of the Burj Khalifa skyscraper in Dubai.

Delegates gathered together again for the final panel session of the day, discussing gender imbalance, female diversity and inclusion in the fire sector and related industries, with contributions from Sarah Dixon, MD of Johnson Controls Fire Suppression UK&I; Lynsey Seal, joint head of the LFB fire engineering group; and Sofie Hooper, head of policy, Institute of Workplace and Facilities Management.

Referring to gender inclusion as the “elephant in the room”, Sarah asserted that “the cultural challenges that we see can only be overcome by diverse leadership, with diverse experiences.” Lynsey agreed, saying that by “having a much more diverse group of people, we have become much better problem solvers over time. But, we have had to change the culture to encourage the diversity in terms of people feeling welcome within our group, and that has taken time to change.” Sofie added that diversity in the workforce also allows for “greater access for different talents, and therefore that should impact on better outcomes… you need a diversity of thought, and that can only come from a diversity of experience.”

Mark Hardingham, chair of the NFCC gave the final session of the day, entitled the reform of the fire and rescue service. Referring to the previous session, Mark said “it would be remiss of me not to comment” on diversity, stating its vital importance in the plenary’s proposed reforms, and that diversity does bring better decisions: “diversity brings collective intelligence.” The presentation continued by outlining the need for constant change to keep the fire and rescue services current and operating at the best capacity possible.

After questions, Mark also gave the closing address, reiterating the day’s themes and calling for collaboration and culture change. Mark also stressed the importance of mental health in relation to the built environment, a point he says is often overlooked. Remembering again the passing of colleagues in the sector this year, Mark posed that “it’s up to us now to pick up that leadership challenge… the onus and responsibility is on us.”

The FPA would like to extend its thanks to everyone who attended this year’s conference, whether in-person or virtually, including all of the speakers for their invaluable contributions, and our sponsors and exhibitors for supporting the event. 

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