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IFSJ Exclusive: Collaborative Reporting for Safer Structures

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Neil Gibbins, lead fire consultant at CROSS-UK, discusses the evolution of building safety culture

In December 2017, just six months after the Grenfell Tower fire, Dame Judith Hackitt produced her interim report “Building a Safer Future” which stated: “The work of the review to date has found that the current regulatory system for ensuring fire safety in high-rise and complex buildings is not fit for purpose. This applies throughout the life cycle of a building, both during construction and occupation, and is a problem connected both to the culture of the construction industry and the effectiveness of the regulators.”

The Standing Committee on Structural Safety (SCOSS), made up of leading thinkers from the Institution of Structural Engineers, recognised that there could be great benefits achieved by organising a route for people in their profession to share learning in a safe, independent, non-judgmental process and so it decided to give CROSS, a structural safety reporting system that had been in operation for over 15 years, a new focus.

CROSS, which stands for Collaborative Reporting for Safer Structures, was recently relaunched with a new website and scope, reflecting the wider remit that now includes fire safety. Significant investment by the UK Government’s Building Safety Programme team has facilitated a complete refresh of the website and engagement with the fire sector, the driver for this being the Grenfell Tower fire and the subsequent analyses of our building safety system.

CROSS has established structural safety expert panels in the USA and Australasia. The expansion into fire is limited to the UK at this time, but many people around the world are expressing interest and it is clear that there does not need to be boundaries to sharing learning. The expansion of CROSS will support fire sector learning, providing a route for professionals to safely share lessons that need to be learned and to give some oversight of the health of the fire safety system, helping protect the public and firefighters.

Thankfully very few people will suffer a loss of a friend or relative from fire in their lifetime. However, Grenfell demonstrated that we must not become complacent. The hundreds of tall buildings clad in a similar manner could have led to similar disasters with potentially more unidentified failings yet to be revealed. Dame Judith pointed out many areas that could be improved, one of them being that there is a need for a knowledge hub.

The broad role of CROSS

CROSS has a number of functions. It provides a route for a conscientious professional to tell others about something they are concerned about, or to share something they have learned. The information they give can be analysed by an expert panel that holds knowledge sufficient to identify its importance and what lessons need to be learned. The same expert panel sit back and look at the system and interpret how it is working and what needs to be done to keep it being effective.

All of this is reliant on trust, integrity and a level of transparency. The right people doing the right thing at the right time. Building, developing and maintaining a good culture. CROSS is well established, trusted and thankfully open to sharing the learning about the process with their colleagues in the fire sector.

Over 1,000 reports have been submitted to CROSS and the analysis has fed into many CROSS newsletters. Where appropriate, safety alerts have been disseminated to give a heads up, hopefully averting repeats that might lead to tragedies.

The UK approach to fire safety over the last forty years has changed quite dramatically, progressed from being almost totally owned and managed in a prescriptive manner by the fire brigades to a much more diverse, goal based, self-compliant and complex process.

In that period the bodies responsible for providing fire safe buildings, the people in the system and the materials used have changed dramatically. There has been little in place to bring them all together to look at the efficacy of the whole system. The expansion of CROSS is a key step that aims to improve learning in the fire sector and create a route for professionals to share lessons safely and provide some oversight of the health of the fire safety system.

How does CROSS work?

CROSS applies a process devised by NASA for the US aviation sector. First, reports are received by “Designated Persons” – the only people who know the identity of the reporter and or the building involved. The report is deidentified and shared with an expert panel. A CROSS report is then developed that sets out the issue that has been reported and the lessons to be learned, signposting associated references as appropriate before the report is then published. Subscribers to the website can chose to receive alerts as and when new reports are posted.

Over 1000 reports have been received, reviewed and learning points have been published in a quarterly update. Among those reports have been nuggets of information that have been read by structural engineers and have added to the knowledge pool for the sector. Structural engineers are now expected to become familiar with CROSS reports and hundreds of them have shared their learning with others. The expert panel also meet to review the overarching lessons identified from the reports that have been received, feeding their knowledge back into the safety system.

It is not a huge leap in some respects to think of fire safety as a natural partner to structural safety. CROSS has received reports relating to fire safety matters and these were generally in the space where fire safety and structural safety come together. As an example, current issues around the use of mass timber for structural elements brings engineering challenges to both professions. However, there has been no formal interface to bring the two together in a safe space where concerns and ideas can be explored.

The formation of a CROSS-UK Fire Safety Expert Panel and regular planned events that bring them together with the CROSS-UK Structural Safety Expert Panel provides the opportunity to feed informed opinion into the building safety system.

The future of building safety

The new CROSS has been launched. For the founders of CROSS, it marks a step forward in assuring the future of a body that has done a great job to date, underpinned by support from the IStructE, ICE and the HSE. The success of CROSS in the UK has resulted in the establishment of CROSS in Australasia (CROSS-AUS) and the USA (CROSS-US) in the last few years. In the UK, CROSS is ideally placed to fit into the new Building Safety Regulator framework as it develops and builds the new building safety regime.

CROSS  is a key piece of a jigsaw picture that describes a good culture. Culture is something that Dame Judith pointed towards, a small word but so pertinent when considering how to develop an effective building safety system. Numbers signing up to receive CROSS newsletters, sharing and submitting reports, are good indicators of the direction of travel of the culture in the industry.

CROSS is receiving and publishing fire related reports covering some of the key interest areas here in the UK including product markings and marketing, competence, oversight during construction, the use of modern or novel systems or approaches and the impact of climate change considerations on building and firefighter safety.

The fire sector is re-shaping and recovering from the horror of the Grenfell Tower fire. By supporting and becoming involved with CROSS, part of Dame Judith’s culture jigsaw will slot into place.

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