Your safety is as important to us when you are at work, out shopping or enjoying a night out, just as much as it is when you are at home. Therefore we want to work with businesses to help prevent fires and reduce risk. We also want to support the local economy as we know there is a clear link between deprivation and risk.
Our strategy, titled Focus on Business, sets out how we will provide education, advice and other support to businesses.
The number of fires we attend in businesses and other non-domestic properties has decreased significantly over recent years. In 2009/10 we saw a slight increase in the number of this type of fire so we prioritised this area of preventative work. Encouragingly the number of fires, both deliberate and accidental, has fallen again since then.
Helping businesses to manage risk
There are approximately 57,000 active businesses in Kent and Medway, the majority of which are small or medium-sized. However, whilst the largest of these may have up to 250 employees, most have fewer than ten. Around one-fifth of UK businesses will suffer a major disruption each year, and this could include the threat of fire.
There are clear benefits in us working with businesses to reduce risk. Most small businesses never recover from a major disruption and close within 18 months. If a fire does occur, good fire precautions and training will mean that people do not get hurt and can safely do the most they can to put it out. The building layout, management and fire-resisting features when properly used will limit the extent of fire and protect the business as much as possible. We also provide advice on business continuity, so that businesses can be up and running again quickly if a fire does occur.
We have recently launched a specialist business education unit offering practical advice. The first step is for businesses to complete a fire risk assessment and there is information on how to do this on our website, but we can also provide further guidance and support if necessary. We do still have extensive enforcement powers but we use these proportionately and only when businesses do not follow our advice or disregard the law.
We are working with partners, such as the Health and Safety Executive, to improve engagement with businesses and raise awareness about the risks. We have also recognised that businesses owned or managed by people from minority groups may have different needs and by improving engagement we can help them to control risks better.
Support for larger businesses
Our business education team will provide guidance, advice and support for all businesses that request it, but it is small and medium sized enterprises that will benefit most from this service. This is because larger businesses are often part of national organisations, chains or franchises.
The Government has recently established a ‘Primary Authority Scheme’ which allows for these businesses to establish a relationship with one fire and rescueauthority whose requirements will then be consistently applied to that business’s premises throughout the country. We will develop and implement a partnership with one large business under the national scheme which is expected to be in place by April 2014.
We know that new building designs, materials and methods are constantly evolving. Timber-framed construction, sustainable designs, ventilation, and the use of wide expanses of glass, all contribute to different ‘fire behaviours’ and pose different risks to manage. Our specialist staff work with architects, technical bodies and research centres to understand and, if appropriate, influence the latest developments. We then offer practical guidance to the industry and ensure our own firefighters are fully trained in how to deal with fires in buildings of this nature.
The planning process also gives us an opportunity to engage with those planning new buildings, and to look at opportunities for improving safety at the design stage, well before any formal application for planning approval is made. We seek to be involved at an early stage as we believe there are often missed opportunities to agree a more cost-effective and safer building design.
Whilst our approach is to support businesses and owners of buildings, there will be occasions where we need to take a more formal approach in order to keep people safe. We know from experience that there are times when the condition of a building becomes unsafe, and our informal approach of offering guidance and advice does not result in the necessary improvements.
There are also some occasions when we find buildings with an immediate and serious threat of fire and injury to those people using it. Under these circumstances we will use our enforcement powers. Wherever possible, we will give the person responsible for the building the opportunity to resolve the issues we have identified. When we do take enforcement action we will always explain the reasons for doing so.
We have a programme of ‘audits’ where we visit specific buildings and conduct a review of the fire precautions and management arrangements. The majority of our audit visits are focused on buildings and areas which our research indicates pose the greatest risk to life. We will also visit buildings if there has been a fire or we receive information to suggest there is a specific fire risk in the building. This way we can make the best use of the resources we have available to us by achieving the greatest reduction in risk.
Automatic fire alarms
In April 2012 we changed how we respond to calls from automatic fire alarms, most of which are in business premises like factories and shops. Only about one in fifty of these calls turn out to be fires as most are false alarms, often caused by problems such as poor maintenance of alarm systems.
We changed our policy so that between 6am and 6pm we only respond to calls from AFAs where someone confirms that there are signs of a fire. From April 2013 we extended this policy to cover 24 hours. As a result, the number of AFA calls attended has fallen by a further 45%, which means that there are now many more occasions when fire engines are available for genuine emergencies, whereas in the past they would have been responding to a false alarm.
We worked with the business community when introducing these changes, and phased in the policy over two years in direct response to some of the feedback we received. We will continue to monitor the impact very closely, and where there is any doubt, we will continue to send fire engines.
We recognise that some of the biggest improvements we can make to the efficiency of our service can be achieved by using technology to improve the way we work and the services we offer. We are introducing a Premises Risk Management system. In addition to improving the way we hold and manage our records, the system will also allow us to highlight specific building risks to our staff should they be called to a fire in that building.
We have also started to look at other electronic systems which will allow businesses to access some of our services on line and improve the availability of information about completing a risk assessment and managing a building safely.
The full Focus on Business Strategy was approved by the Authority in October 2013.