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Exclusive: Jonathan O’Neill, managing director, Fire Protection Association

Jonathan O’Neill OBE, managing director, FPA is a key figure in the UK’s efforts to keep its residents and buildings safe. In an exclusive chat with IFSJ, O’Neill speaks about the building safety bill, and what more needs to be done

The Fire Protection Association has existed in the UK for several decades, and has strived to identify the dangers of fire and help companies and developers reduce fire-related risks. At the heart of the organization is the FPA’s managing director Jonathan O’Neill OBE who completes three decades within the organization this year.  

“I joined the Loss Prevention Council (LPC) after working in insurance for eight years before that with Lloyd’s,” O’Neill tells International Fire and Safety Journal.  

Prior to it being an independent body, the FPA was a department in the LPC. “I took over the department, which was called the Fire Protection Association, a name which had disappeared over the years but still held a lot of gravitas in the sector. In 1997, the insurers decided to dispose of the LPC but they retained the FPA.” 

O’Neill’s mission was to give the FPA a new persona, away from the LPC as it moved forward with maintaining its aim of safety and fire protection in the country. “It wasn’t a commercial organisation and the early days were quite tough as we relied on levies from the insurers for the first 18 months. Thereafter we took a slight commercial direction. We are a not-for-profit organization and invest everything back into our activities.” 

O’Neill says the firm initially had a turnover of GBP1million in the early days. Last year, the FPA’s turnover was GBP12 million. “There was a surge and uptick of our services in the immediate aftermath of Grenfell.” For the immediate future, O’Neill forecasts a steady growth in revenue as its services continue to be in demand.  

Fire assessments and the Fire Safety Bill 

The Fire Safety Act 2021 was an act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom which arose out of the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire and relates to fire safety in buildings in England and Wales with two or more domestic residences, making changes to the Regulatory Reform Order (Fire Safety Order) 2005. 

“The Fire Safety Order was piecemeal, and it was rightly accused of being retrospective i.e. after every tragedy we would start to see a change in fire and safety law.”  

O’Neill is satisfied that the act incorporated two major changes. These are: “We have now got a situation where the fire risk assessment can look at the entire building, which is good. Secondly, we will start to see external assessment being part of that. Through the horrors of Grenfell, we have seen if a risk assessment doesn’t look at the entire building structure it can lead to serious problems.” 

 However, the act doesn’t consider third party accreditation of fire assessments. Expressing his concern on the matter, O’Neill says: “There a reluctance to accept that a fire risk assessor needs to have proper accreditation and a third-party accreditation. As it stands, anyone in the industry can set themselves up as a fire risk assessor and get work.  

Based on the barrister’s opinion the FPA suggestion to the government was: “Rather than making it a statutory duty to add third party assessments. What if we made it a statutory defense in law? This means that if you use a third-party assessment, all parties are protected by the full extent of the law, should something go wrong,” O’Neill tells IFSJ. It’s a practice where the assessors are being assessed in a constant loop of following the best practice through legislation.  

 “It boils down to a fundamental issue in safety. The gas industry managed to sort this issue out a few years ago. For instance, you cannot touch a gas appliance in a commercial or residential premise unless you are Gas Safe, which is a third-party accredited scheme.” 

A change in regulation 

Five years on from the Grenfell disaster O’Neill wants a fundamental root and branch review of building regulations in the UK as it’s well over a decade since the last review. “Building methods have evolved dramatically over the last decade, we are using different materials which are combustible. This will not change over the next 20 years because some of it ties into the sustainability agenda. In the years to come, we will continue to build with even more combustible products because they have less impact on the environment. We accept that. At the same time, we need to re-write some of the building rules, which were done keeping old fashioned building materials and techniques.” 

O’Neill recounts a fire that tore through a Cheshire care home a few years back. The largely timber frame of the building decimated the care home as it spread rapidly. Luckily there were no fatalities since the residents were mostly outside on a warm sunny day. “A massive disaster was averted, thanks to vigilant staff and fire rescue personnel, although the residents lost their belongings. 30 years ago, these fires would be inspected by the Inspectorate of Fire with a recommendation to investigate the building regulations.” 

O’Neill points out that the government and various bodies have done a great job in bringing down the number of fatalities caused by fires. “Over three decades ago, when I started in this industry there were approximately 800 fatalities due to fires in the UK every year. The government and the fire and rescue services have done a tremendous job in bringing those numbers down by about 75%.” 

At no point, O’Neill says, can the issue be taken for granted. The Grenfell disaster highlighted several flaws in building regulations and a lack of competent fire assessments.  

“We cannot assume that fire is no longer a problem,” he reiterates.  

Then there’s the Building Safety Bill which aims to reform the safety system for residential properties by appointing a Building Safety Regulator, giving a greater voice to residents, driving industry change, and creating a national framework for increased oversight. 

The Building Safety Bill is a step in the right direction and O’Neill feels despite its limitations it’s a welcome move. “The Building Safety Bill is limited in what it can do, since it looks at high rise buildings. It is at least bringing in a different regime for looking at building regulation. The Building Safety Bill was the absolute need of the hour. But we need a different building regulation that is reviewed on a regular basis because we are changing the way we build.” 

Building safety scandal 

O’Neill has also welcomed the government’s move to address the building safety scandal. In April 2022, Westminster, revealed a wide-ranging agreement that will see industry contribute £5 billion to address and fix various issues in buildings.  

Under the new agreement, which will become legally enforceable, over 35 of the UK’s biggest homebuilders have pledged to fix all buildings 11 metres+ that they have played a role in developing in the last 30 years. 

In what is considered a victory for leaseholders, Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove has agreed a solution with the housing industry that will see developers commit a minimum of £2 billion to fix their own buildings. Industry will also pay up to a further £3 billion through an expansion to the Building Safety Levy. 

“This is a great move because leaseholders shouldn’t pay for these repairs. Those responsible for putting sub-standard fire protection should be held accountable. My concern is the route to getting the payment organized. It is up to the government to ensure that all of this is properly enforced, and the monies are properly paid.” 

O’Neill believes that leaseholders should not be held at ransom and the government can do more to help them. He suggests that the government can fund the repairs immediately, while the authorities chase payments from responsible parties. 

“Looking back at the evidence we have seen from the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, the building regulation system was the responsibility of the government, and they took their eye off the ball. This means leaseholders, through no fault of their own, bought properties that were unsafe, and did not comply with regulation.” 

A unified building code 

O’Neill has long advocated a unified set of building codes that can cover the devolved governments as well. “We can learn a lot from the efforts of the devolved governments (in the UK), and how they move on certain matters pertaining to fire prevention. For instance, mandatory suppression and detection enforced from a legislation standpoint can make a huge difference. When I first started in fire, Scotland had a requirement to put sprinklers in single-storey retail spaces. England followed only two to three years later. 

“Britain has one of the most innovative fire protection systems’ industry in the world. And manufacturers are always pushing the evolution in creating new products and systems. But the industry needs support from the government. It’s not enough to only have the highest manufacturing, testing, and certification standards. We need regulatory backing. We can learn from the devolved governments who are leading the way ever so often.” 

The future 

The future is bright for those working towards fire protection in the UK. “We are going to see a different level of scrutiny on building safety after the Building Safety Bill and the Fire Safety Act (come into full effect). There’s going to be a greater emphasis on compartmentation which is welcome. We are launching a fire compartmentation and door survey tool at FIREX in May 2022.  

“We also have some great developments in our laboratory, we are installing some equipment that allows us to improve fire door penetration tests. It gives some much-needed capacity to the market which now is quite busy.” The FPA plans on continuing its growth efforts over 2022 and into the future with surplus funds invested into ensuring that “we have a safer and more resilient built environment going forward.” 

In conclusion O’Neill feels fire is a great career option and must do everything to attract new talent. “There is a lack of awareness of fire as a lucrative career option. The industry has been slow in terms of adopting professional standards, adopting the right university courses, and national occupational standards to support the industry. For long we have been training people on the job without necessary accreditation. For many years now the new generation has not come through and we have a gap which needs to be filled by competent people. 

Today, the demand is high for passionate and qualified people who can work in the laboratory, or as assessors, trainer, and consultants.