CROSS Safety Report
Potential dangers in misusing fire safety terminology
A reporter highlighted the issue that there are cases where inconsistent and inaccurate fire safety terminology is used.
Key Learning Outcomes
Regulators, Enforcers, Designers and Engineers:
- Use terms and phrases relating to building safety in a consistent manner
- Make use of fire safety vocabulary standards, such as BS4422, when appropriate
- Be aware of the ever-changing fire safety landscape and adopt terminology as it evolves
- In case of doubt explain the meaning of technical terms
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Explicit and unambiguous communication is essential in the work of professional engineers. Many terms related to fire safety in buildings use everyday language, however they may take on specific technical meanings which may not be fully aligned to the common meanings. This adjustment sometimes happens with the aim of improving comprehension for non-specialists, but it can potentially distort the topic unless explicitly addressed.
As an indication, the reporter has encountered this general issue of misleading or misapplied terminology in discussions on what is a high-rise, a higher risk residential building (HRRB), a tall building, a complex building, and most importantly what constitutes a common building situation.
The reporter wishes to raise awareness on the issue, highlighting the fact that different participants in the design process might have a different understanding of the same term and that there is no universal common base yet. They welcome comments of similar experiences and examples, and until this issue is resolved centrally, they encourage the explicit clarification of terms used in professional activities, so that any potential confusion, ambiguity, and miscommunication is reduced.
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The importance of clear, 'misunderstanding proof' written communication is a point well made in this report, I fully endorse the sentiment. In relation to the field of fire safety/fire engineering, the need for such clear use of language & especially explanation of acronyms is especially important in this time when the ripples caused by Grenfell are still expanding outwards. I completed a Master's Degree in Construction Law some years ago and learnt that every acronym, no matter how apparently 'obvious' must be explained/defined and capital letters must only be used for defined terms along with such definition. Some might see the call for clarity expressed in this report as semantics. I disagree, the need for clarity in this field is, in my view, paramount if misunderstandings are to be avoided.
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The reporter has raised a very interesting area for discussion because poor communication is a source of danger in any technical environment. While it is outside the scope of CROSS to clarify fire safety terminology, it is considered of value to raise awareness about miscommunication and how this affects safety issues. There is a need for all stakeholders to make clear what they are referring to, and ensure they 'introduce' phrases or acronyms in order to follow best practice.
it is of value to raise awareness about miscommunication and how this affects safety issues
BS 4422:2005 - Fire Vocabulary, which is currently being revised, will address some of these issues, and unify the terminology used. Similarly, BS EN ISO 13943:2017 also clarifies the key terminology used in fire safety engineering testing and applications, with the addition of providing terms that are deprecated and should not be used. However, the former standard 'does not include terms for which the standard dictionary definition is applicable. Neither does it include terms and definitions which are unique to any small specialized discipline within fire safety'. The latter standard is an ongoing project which is expected to be updated in the future.
For example, there is a significant difference between a 'fireman's lift’, a 'firefighting lift' and a 'firefighter's lift' and the level of protection these infer or offer. The term ‘fire door’ is another example, often referring to either a fire exit or a fire resisting door. Another use of terminology that leads to confusion is 'smoke control', which can be a generic term used for 'smoke clearance, natural ventilation, mechanical ventilation or pressurisation systems'. The panel has also noted some confusion over 'fire resistance' and what that means (in terms of resistance, integrity, and insulation), with many thinking it means a product is 'fireproof' (which is a term wrongly used), and it often incorrectly gets confused or interchanged with the term 'fire retardant'.
The government is currently working through a consultation on classifying groups of buildings and the terminology which would be most appropriate to refer to these, so that they can be covered by the new Building Safety Regulator.
Publications from HSE and the BSR refer to HRB (Higher Risk Building) rather than HRRBs which is not now used.
The EU Firestat project also recognised similar issues of terminology in the collection and analysis of statistics, and proposed a harmonised set of definitions and methodologies, with the hope it undergoes a standardisation process. The project’s final report can be accessed here.