Fire safety matters at Midland Heart
There is no typical day in the life of a fire risk assessor for Midland Heart and with a patch stretching across the Midlands region and around 90 assessments a month for the two-strong team, no two days bring the same challenges.
“Identical houses or even flats in the same block are never identical from the aspect of a fire risk assessment,” says Fire Risk Assessor Steve Martin whose job brings together the attributes of a detective with those of good neighbour, plus a liking for spiders.
His daily routine includes climbing up and down hundreds of stairs, peering into bin stores and communal cupboards, shining a torch into remote corners of meter cupboards and loft spaces and checking that fire safety measures and equipment from signage to smoke seals, door closures to heat detectors are in place to help protect our tenants.
Steve’s role is relatively new to Midland Heart as three years ago the in-house system for fire risk assessments (FRAs) was reviewed, leading to a decision to recruit a specialist team with fire safety expertise and experience in what is a critical compliance field for landlords.
Housing associations are legally required to carry out FRAs in line with FSO2005 standards across their portfolios; an area of their work under increased scrutiny following the Grenfell Tower disaster.
Midland Heart's housing officers had carried out inspections previously as part of their tenancy management remit but it was agreed that having a dedicated in-house resource with specific knowledge was central to performance improvement.
However, whilst fire safety management and compliance now lies with the FRA team, all employees and specifically scheme managers, rangers and caretakers, and our contractors have a responsibility too.
Alongside the introduction of a specialist FRA team, new bespoke software for fire risk assessment planning, reporting and action monitoring has been developed.
Steve and colleague Leigh Cotterill complete their on-site assessments on mobile devices in real time, which optimises productivity and ensures a transparent digital audit trail. Any resulting actions are categorised by risk and assigned to the relevant team with timescales. Progress towards completion is tracked by the system.
“What we do is point the relevant teams to the work required, and the high standards we achieve are because of the close partnerships we have built up with the repairs teams, neighbourhoods, scheme managers, compliance, and development, to name a few” says Steve.
“This had led to a high standard of fire safety across our range of properties, and we now get less attention from inspecting officers from the fire services as well. Because of our reputation for fire safety we’ll be more likely to get a heads up with a friendly phone call than an enforcement notice. This is a direct result of all the hard work of all the teams we work with.”
As an FRA there are five different guidance documents to refer to and often assessors have to use their own judgement in preparing their assessment which is a legal document and can be challenged in a court of law.
The typical issues encountered by the FRA team include being unable to access locked doors in communal spaces, bin stores used as smoking shelters or for drug-taking, insecure door entry systems and unsealed gaps and flammable debris in meter cupboards. There are also problems around tenants storing personal possessions or parking mobility scooters in communal areas, secure bin areas that are insecure and tenants’ front doors in blocks of flats that are not smoke sealed or have fire-rated letterboxes.
“It can even be problematic identifying which properties belong to Midland Heart especially when it’s a single converted house on a street or flats over shops as there’s no external sign and the postcode covers a number of buildings,” says Steve. “Often, there’s a fair bit of detective work before we can start the assessment.”
Full assessments of general needs stock are carried out every three years by the team but checks of escape routes, door opening devices and a visual check of the smoke detection and escape lighting system are undertaken by the housing association's rangers every month, whilst specialist contractors test the escape lighting and fire warning system monthly.
“One of the assets you need as an FRA is nosiness; being inquisitive is part of the remit,” adds Steve. “Most tenants are pleased to see you and appreciate their safety is being taken seriously.
“It’s always good to talk to them and they often have useful information about what’s behind a locked cupboard door, for instance, or what a bin storage area to being mis-used for. Nosiness and a bit of detective work invariably pays off!”