03 August 2015

Working in the fire industry we are all acutely aware of the need for our products or services and that whatever our area of specialisation we are working to protect people’s lives. Portable Extinguishers are firmly placed on the front line of life protection and while there is a trend in some areas to remove them in favour of automatic systems and evacuation their importance should not be underestimated. With that in mind the portable extinguisher technician holds responsibility to people’s lives through ensuring that the right extinguisher is available according to the risk and that it will function if it should be needed.

If that wasn’t enough, ensuring the technician gets it right is current legislation (The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order), technician and Third Party Certification schemes such as the offerings from BAFE and of course guidance documents such as BS5306, so how does the technician make sure they can comply with this? In short, training!

So let’s boil it down to basics, what does the technician get on the training course? (S)he needs to know and understand the physics of fire from the causes and process of combustion through to extinguishing; they need to understand flammable materials and extinguishing media and they need to understand what happens when any from the wide range of extinguishing media are applied to a fire and how they will react with materials they come in to contact with. The Technician needs to understand how to read a risk assessment and estimate the potential scale of a fire before selecting the extinguisher(s) for the risk (such as using a water extinguisher on a Class F fire or installing an extinguisher too small for the quantity of combustibles held), they need to understand the construction of portable extinguishers, servicing a stored pressure extinguisher for example has obvious and inherent risks to personal safety when stripping, and if not correctly returned to a functioning condition, including pressurisation, the extinguisher may fail should it be required. The technician also needs to understand their customer and how to ensure that customer understands and fulfils their individual requirements.

Most of what is required can be gained through training courses such as those offered by the FIA. BS 5306 does state who it recognises as the exam providers and so your training provider must lead on to completion of the recognised exam. During the period of learning the key to a good course is one that develops understanding of the subject and doesn’t just ‘teach to repeat’ what has been said on the day.  If your training provider simply gives the answers to the exam paper the technician hasn’t developed the understanding necessary to apply what they have learnt to varied situations. 

That is where respected and established training providers such as the FIA come in. As a benchmark the FIA course provides three days of comprehensive learning followed by the BAFE exam on day 4. Over the three days of learning the technician will cover both the theory of parts 3 (Servicing and Maintenance) and 8 (Supply and Distribution) of BS 5306 and for the practical element carry out stripping, inspecting and reassembly of a range of portable extinguishers. Learners are encouraged to think for themselves and with daily assessment of progress any difficulties in understanding or interpretation of the standard are quickly addressed giving the learner the greatest possible chance of success on the exam.

Day 4 for the FIA is exam day, for this we use BAFE. As administrators for the Competent Technicians Scheme it is felt that they are best placed to conduct the exam, they have a comprehensive understanding of what is required for entry to the scheme and as such will have similar understanding of testing that knowledge. Examiners from BAFE will attend to invigilate a 2 hour paper and carry out 1 to 1 practical assessment. 

Herein lays the need for the training provider to understand the learner. For many a 2 hour exam paper and 1 to 1 assessment is a daunting enough task, but in an industry where practical skill often outweighs academic ability, technicians attending occasionally have learning difficulties or dyslexia and their abilities have to be recognised to the same level as the more academic. To that end, with good communication between learner and training provider, facility can be put in place to allow for coping strategies. In some cases extra costs will be applied to the learner or their employer (such as in the event a scribe is required, which cannot be someone directly connected to the learner), however allowing extra time or printing in specific typefaces or on coloured paper will help for no extra cost, giving all learners the best opportunity to pass. 

The British Standard also recommends refresher training, a fact repeated in the requirement for competent technician schemes. It is intended that refresher training be completed every three years. Unfortunately the transient nature of the portables industry and individual demands on the technician means that regular refresher training may either not be possible or simply left for extended periods beyond the recommended timescale (if periods between training and refresher becomes too extended a four day course may once again be required). To ensure that the learner on refresher training gains the best benefit and is brought up to date with developments in technology, changes to standards and current best practice, the trainer needs to understand the baseline from which to instruct. To do this the FIA refresher course starts with a simple assessment identifying levels of knowledge and understanding among the group. From there the trainer is able to tailor the course to the needs of the group. In one day of learning the trainer will then bring all of the learners up to date and compliant with current scheme, standard and legislative requirements.

Going back to the original question, do I really need training to service a portable extinguisher? For the individual, philanthropic conscientiousness (stated above) is just one aspect of the need for training and if every person working in the industry held the same social conscience there would be no requirement for legislation or Third Party Certification schemes. However making sure that portable extinguishers are maintained to a consistently high standard requires measures of control. As I’ve already mentioned Third Party Certification schemes, I will start there. It’s hard to argue in favour of Third Party Certification when there is no legislation requiring certification, leaving businesses and individuals working commercially without it subject to criminal prosecution as is the case for gas engineers. We also know that without the cost of registering on such a scheme businesses have the scope to undercut prices, which in an industry where margins are very small the attraction to not hold Third Party Certification become quickly apparent. 

Third Party Certification works for both the individual technician and for the company employing them. It provides an easy point of reference to the end user that the company and individual they use knows what they are doing, has the relevant and comprehensive support systems in place and the right tools for the job. It ensures that the service provider works to a recognised base standard (most companies will provide their own levels of added value to this standard in order to stand out from their competitors), which ensures the end user knows what they should expect. Commercially it makes sense to hold Third Party Certification; it is easy for any of us to make the statement that we can do something but harder to provide evidence proving it (I frequently claim to be able to service my car but wouldn’t be able to sell that service as there is much I haven’t a clue how to do as I’ve never been trained). Third Party Certification provides that evidence of proof. Training forms one important aspect of Third Party Certification, the company cannot be awarded certification without competent technicians, subsequently the technician cannot be deemed competent without recognised and current training (forming just one aspect of the certification requirements). 

Going a stage further we have legislative requirements. The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order (RR(FS)O) states that there must be a Responsible Person (RP) for the fire safety of the premises (I paraphrase and identification of the RP is not simply a case of putting it in to an employee’s job description) and that the RP has to, in turn, employ Competent Persons (CP) to provide advice and carry out the work on the fire safety systems within their area of specialisation. It is highly unlikely that the CP will remain the same person for all systems within the fire safety programme and the RP has to be able to confirm the CP’s claim to be competent. The best and easiest way to demonstrate competence is through Third Party Certification. To date the term competence has not been defined by law and so it is assumed by the fire industry to be a combination of experience, the right tools for the job and of course training. With all of these in place the technician can have the confidence to stand up in court and say yes I am competent (assuming they were working within the limits of their specialisation, it would be no good claiming competence in fire doors if specialisation is limited to Portable Extinguishers). Even easier and backing up the claim would be a certificate claiming that they have been independently audited and certificated by a third party. 

Returning once again to the original question, do I really need training to service a portable extinguisher? Yes you do! As with many apparently simple tasks the layman or untrained individual may be tempted to do it themselves, however key aspects of safety may be inadvertently missed, aspects of fire risk could be omitted or misinterpreted, and as a result in the event of a fire the portable extinguisher may prove to be insufficient or worse completely wrong for the nature of the fire. If the extinguisher or its provision should fail then lives are put at risk and potentially lost, even if the company policy on extinguisher use is not to fight the fire but to aid escape. In the subsequent enquiry and possible court case the competence of the service technician is called into question. The most effective defence in court is Third Party Certification, which is recognised in the fire industry as the easiest means of demonstrating competence due to its nature of independently auditing the training, experience tools and processes held by the technician. Otherwise the technician has to be able to effectively stand in court and say, yes I knew what I was doing, carried out the service according to current guidance, industry best practice and legislation and ensured that the Portable Extinguisher provision was correct to the identified risk and in accordance with the company’s fire risk assessment.