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CROSS for fire safety

Region: CROSS-UK Published: 29 March 2021

Neil Gibbins discusses CROSS’s expansion into fire safety and the benefits that this will bring to the fire safety sector.


The Grenfell Tower fire

In December 2017, just six months after the Grenfell Tower fire, Dame Judith Hackitt produced her interim report. The themes and issues identified continue through to the final report, all being accepted by the Government. They are being addressed through various parliamentary and other processes.

Taking one paragraph from any document risks losing the context but this statement stands very well on its own. I feel it captures the essence of what Dame Judith found:

‘The work of the review to date has found that the current regulatory system for ensuring fire safety in high-rise and complex buildings is not fit for purpose. This applies throughout the life cycle of a building, both during construction and occupation, and is a problem connected both to the culture of the construction industry and the effectiveness of the regulators.’

Around the time of the publication of the interim report, I was invited to join a gathering of people chosen to help identify solutions to the issues identified.

The meeting was addressed by the then Home Secretary, Amber Rudd. I will never forget her saying these words:

'People in our country must never again be faced with the decision to either die from fire in their flat or jump.'

Like many who have been at the sharp end in a fire situation, I could too easily put myself into that space. My more recent experiences in strategic and political circles made me think that such strong words from the Home Secretary confirmed that the Government really got it.

She so clearly articulated the horror that should not happen to people in our care. She recognised that the system was broken.

The beginning of CROSS for fire safety

It was also around this time when I first met Alastair Soane of CROSS. In my role as technical advisor to the Institution of Fire Engineers, Alastair approached me to open a discussion about CROSS. Dame Judith subsequently went on to make a distinct recommendation that CROSS should be expanded.

CROSS was already well embedded in the structural engineering profession. With little explanation it became clearly apparent that CROSS is more than a system to receive confidential safety reports.

The full background to the creation of CROSS, modelled on the US aviation safety reporting system, can be found elsewhere. The pertinent point here is that it is a key piece of a jigsaw picture that describes a good culture. Culture is something that Dame Judith pointed towards, a small word but so pertinent when considering how to develop an effective building safety system.

How the fire safety sector can benefit from CROSS

The fire safety sector has nothing similar to CROSS. The UK approach to fire safety over the last forty years has changed quite dramatically. It has gone from being almost totally owned and managed in a prescriptive manner by the fire brigades to a much more diverse, goal based, self-compliant and complex process.

In that period the bodies responsible for providing fire safe buildings, the people in the system and the materials used have changed dramatically. There has been little in place to bring them all together to look at the efficacy of the whole system. The expansion of CROSS is a key step that will support fire sector learning, providing a route for professionals to safely share lessons that need to be learned and to provide some oversight of the health of the fire safety system.

The expansion of CROSS is a key step that will support fire sector learning, providing a route for professionals to safely share lessons that need to be learned and to provide some oversight of the health of the fire safety system

In terms of the building life cycle, fire has to be considered at design, construction and occupation stages. The ownership and responsibility for compliance can change at each step.

The regulatory regimes for the design, construction, materials and management can sit with different bodies, different regulators and under different government departments. Institutions central to the fire sector for decades have been changed or lost. Examples include the Fire Services College, Her Majesty’s Inspector of Fire Services and the Federation of British Fire Organisations to name but a few.

Throughout this period, fire deaths have fallen dramatically, probably one of the biggest improvements in headline performance of any sector. In broad terms, a reduction from around one thousand per year in the 70’s and 80’s to around 300 per year, across the UK.

Very few people will suffer a loss of a friend or relative from fire in their lifetime. However, Grenfell demonstrated that we must not become complacent. The hundreds of tall buildings clad in a similar manner could have led to similar disasters, with potentially more unidentified failings yet to be revealed. Dame Judith pointed out many areas that could be improved, one of them being that there is a need for a knowledge hub and I have learned that CROSS can be that hub.

Very few people will suffer a loss of a friend or relative from fire in their lifetime. However, Grenfell demonstrated that we must not become complacent.

The broad role of CROSS

CROSS has a number of functions. It provides a route for a conscientious professional to tell others about something they are concerned about, or to share something they have learned. The information they give can be analysed by an Expert Panel that holds knowledge sufficient to identify the importance of the information and what lessons need to be learned.

The same Expert Panel sit back and look at the system and interpret how it is working and what needs to be done to keep it being effective.

All of this is reliant on trust, integrity and a level of transparency. The right people doing the right thing at the right time. Building, developing and maintaining a good culture. CROSS is well established, trusted and thankfully open to sharing the learning about the process with their colleagues in the fire sector.

Over 1,000 reports have been submitted to CROSS and the analysis has fed into many CROSS Newsletters. Where appropriate, safety alerts have been disseminated to give a heads up, hopefully averting repeats that might lead to tragedies.

Engaging with the fire safety sector

Many of the structural safety reports submitted to CROSS are from members of the Institution of Structural Engineers (IStructE) or the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE). Those who might learn from the reports are also primarily members of those same professional bodies. In contrast, the fire safety sector has many different potential sources for reports and outlets for learning.

The Institution of Fire Engineers (IFE) welcomed the chance to work with CROSS to provide a similar process for fire safety. After I had immersed myself in CROSS, to learn how it ticks, I was able to visit (pre COVID thankfully) many of the main influencers in the fire sector. I alerted them to the opportunity that was being created and got their feedback as to the need for CROSS and to identify any barriers. The response was overwhelming, yes, this is both needed and welcomed.

Fire safety as a natural partner to structural safety

It isn’t a huge leap in some respects. CROSS has received reports relating to fire safety matters. These were generally in the space where fire safety and structural safety come together. Current issues around the use of mass timber for structural elements brings engineering challenges to both professions. However, there has been no formal interface to bring the two together in a safe space where concerns and ideas can be explored.

The formation of a CROSS-UK Fire Safety Expert Panel and regular planned events that bring them together with the CROSS-UK Structural Safety Expert Panel provides the opportunity to feed informed opinion into the building safety system.

Dr Peter Wilkinson and I have been engaged as Designated People for CROSS-UK to carry out the initial analysis and report collation. Peter is Technical Director for the IFE and is known and trusted across the sector; between us we have links to most of the pieces of the fire safety jigsaw.

A significant outcome of the re-launch of CROSS is the change of name. CROSS as an acronym is recognised, trusted and valued.

Our user research showed that the industry welcomed the acronym standing for Collaborative Reporting for Safer Structures as a way to both allow CROSS to broaden its remit in to fire safety and also to reflect the integrated way in which professionals will collaborate together for a common purpose.

The future for CROSS and building safety

The new CROSS has just been launched. For the founders of CROSS, it marks a step forward in assuring the future of a body that has done a great job to date, underpinned by support from the IStructE, ICE and the HSE. The success of CROSS in the UK has resulted in the establishment of CROSS in Australasia (CROSS-AUS) and the USA (CROSS-US) in the last few years.

The fire sector is re-shaping and recovering from the horror of the Grenfell Tower fire. By supporting and becoming involved with CROSS, part of Dame Judith’s culture jigsaw will slot into place.

The author, Neil Gibbins QFSM FIFireE, started his fire career as a firefighter in 1977. Whilst Deputy Chief Fire Officer for Devon and Somerset FRS he led the Chief Fire Officers Assn work on fire protection before moving on to become President then CEO of the Institution of Fire Engineers.

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