21 October 2014

The other day I was in a supermarket and picked up some snacks. One of the packets had a very jazzy design and it took me a moment to discover that it was Thai Green Curry, but beyond that I didn’t have a clue what was in the packet. There were several other packs of snacks in equally jazzy packets. After some deliberation I decided to give the Thai Green Curry a try. Clearly this wasn’t one of the bigger decisions in my life but purchasers of fire risk assessments are in much the same predicament; not really knowing what they are buying.

I don’t mean to sound unkind, but many people responsible for fire safety are pretty clueless about fire risk assessments apart from the fact they know they need one. In fact many fire risk assessors aren’t much better. Sure they know about fire safety, the law and such, but what do they actually do and what are they supposed to provide?

This is not a criticism of the consultants; it’s just that, until recently, there has been no universally accepted scope for the services of a fire risk assessor, so everyone is free to ‘do their own thing’. Very often it’s not until the assessment is completed and the report handed over that you find out exactly what you’ve bought. The proposal may have included some details but most are fairly sparse. 

When the assessor visited your premises they may have quizzed you at length or said very little. The assessor may have avidly examined every relevant document or they may have examined some but given most of them only a cursory glance. They may have examined every void, cupboard and dingy corner or they may have just glanced round each room. The assessor may have written feverishly the whole time they were there, took numerous photographs and collected samples or they may have just made a few notes.

Did the assessor complete the work in one visit or did they have to make a return visit? Moreover, was the return visit avoidable and did you have to pay extra for it? Did the assessor give you a preliminary report before the assessor left or were you left wondering what to expect until the report arrived? The report may have been a compendious tome full of explanations, legal notes, plans of the premises and many photographs, or it may have been a thin concise document with only one or two images.

At these two extremes they may both have been perfectly adequate and legal assessments but did they meet your needs and expectations? Some assessors make a follow up visit as a matter of course but most don’t - do you need this and are you paying extra for it? Many purchasers may not think about insurance or may assume that the assessor must be properly insured. The proposal should have mentioned insurance but may not have made any reference to it at all. I’ve even seen one which required the purchaser to indemnify the assessor for the assessor’s errors and omissions. 

Ideally, before you make your buying decision you should be able to extract the key features of the service you are buying from the proposal. You should have enough information to be able to compare one proposal with another. Better still, it would be nice if you had a clear benchmark to measure the proposals against.

The FIA Fire Risk Assessors Council considered this and began looking into ways that assessors could express their offerings, in a way which made it clear to the client what they were getting and enable the client to compare different offerings. After more than a year of consultations and deliberations the Fire Risk Assessment Council finally produced the ‘Standard Scope of Services’. It is a simple, easy to read document that outlines what each party (client and supplier) needs to do and what to expect. 

The Standard Scope of Services outlines exactly what the assessor will do to provide a life safety fire risk assessment. It indicates what the user needs to do to facilitate the assessment, like access to premises, key personnel and documents. It outlines what would be covered by the assessment, the method that would be used to do it and, to some degree, what the final report will contain. It identifies the activities of the assessor that will be included such as follow-up visits and production of drawings. It clearly indicates what will be included and, crucially, what will not. It makes the assessor clearly indicate the quality and competency standards the assessor can demonstrate conformity with. It obliges the assessor to disclose what level of insurance they have for Employers Liability, Public Liability and (most importantly) Professional Indemnity insurance. It even covers confidentiality; after all, you wouldn’t want the competition to know your trade secrets.

The Standard Scope of Services is, in effect, a specification concerned with the technical aspects of the supply of services. It is not a substitute for Third Party Certification Schemes or terms and conditions of sale/purchase. It does not concern itself with quality and competency directly as it refers to certification, registers and the like. Nor does it concern itself with the commercial aspects of a contract which should be specified in the Terms and Conditions of purchase and/or sale. It stands alongside T&Cs and competency standards to form a complete package. 

All you, the client, needs to do is specify that the assessor submits a proposal in conformity with the Standard Scope of Services. All the assessment company needs to do is submit a one page schedule with their proposal which itemises the key variables which you can then compare easily with others. The best part is that it is completely free and publicly available from the FIA website. The purchaser and supplier can confidently specify the use of the Scope knowing that it places no unreasonable demands on either party or increases cost. Simple!

In FIA’s view the Standard Scope of Services should be used by all organisations in order to maintain a high standard of quality, competency and ethics when submitting a fee proposal for an assessment of life safety provisions to satisfy the requirements of the applicable fire safety legislation. The purpose of the Standard Scope of Services is to clearly indicate to the client the scope of assessment they are being offered.

Our little treat, my wife and I, on a Friday night is to snuggle up on the sofa with a Gin and Tonic and a packet of crisps and leave the worries or the working week outside. Recently I produced the packet of Thai Green Curry Flavour snacks. The visual shock of the colourful packet did not prepare us for the visual shock of what was inside; puffs of a lime green colour that you know could not be produced naturally. The flavour was something else! The Thai Green Curry snacks were certainly tasty; savoury, salty, slightly sweet, overtones of lemon and coconut and a strong but not overpowering chilli heat. In short, everything I would expect from the title. 

Unlike buying a packet of crisps, purchasing a fire risk assessment shouldn’t be guesswork. Whilst sometimes you may get what you need other times you may not get what you want. Specify conformity with the FIA Standards Scope of Services and we assure you it won’t leave a bad taste in your mouth.

To download the Scope go to www.fia.uk.com.

Phil Martin, Technical Manager, FIA