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Exclusive: Enhancing the fire service with ISO 17020 accreditation

ISO 17020

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If implemented correctly, we could see accreditation to the requirements of ISO 17020 as a good value for money segue into enhancing the already important role that we play in supporting our police partners…and most importantly our public safety goals” Katie Cornhill writes.

Although the process to appoint the new UK Forensic Science Regulator (FSR) has recently completed the requirement placed on any organisation within England and Wales that undertakes inspections of criminal fire scenes as part of the Criminal Justice setting to meet the performance standards of BS EN ISO 17020:2012 (Conformity assessment – Requirements for the operation of various types of bodies performing inspection) through assessment from United Kingdom Accreditation Service (UKAS) accreditation by a final deadline target date of October 2023 remains

As Fire and Rescue Services (FRS) in the UK decide, climatise, plan (including financially) and prepare themselves to meet the requirements of ISO 17020 there is an opportunity that should not be overlooked. Accreditation brings with it assured successful improvements in service wide performance and quality standards through an internal audit, audit and audit again regime.

Accreditation to the requirements of ISO 17020 “good value for money”

Local choices will be made by the 53 Fire and Rescue Authority’s (FRA) in the UK, but rather than choosing to avoid fire crime scene inspections, we should see accreditation to the requirements of ISO 17020 as a good value for money segue into enhancing the already important role that we play in supporting our police partners, judicial system, the insurance industry, and most importantly our public safety goals.

FRS throughout the UK, and indeed the world, share similar goal-based benefit outcomes that underpin a congruent vision – ‘Communities that are safer, healthier and more resilient’. The same vision is shared by multi-agency partners including Police, National Health Services, and Local Authorities. 

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I have been practicing in Fire Scene Inspections for a while now and engage regularly to support the development of practice nationally. I recently provided some feedback on national Standard Operational Procedures that are being developed and was subsequently asked during an online videos meeting to explain a reformed approach to fire investigation that I called ‘occupant centred life-cycle inspection’.

The term is associated with other areas of person centred practice such as safeguarding, and it is within that context that I have started to consider whether or not we are making the most of the investigative opportunity that is gifted to practitioners through what are always unfortunate circumstances.

Fire scene inspection is an investigative activity. So, what is a fire investigation? Literature appears to collectively indicate that it is to establish the origin, cause, and progression of the fire. The UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) – government agency responsible for the encouragement, regulation and enforcement of workplace health, safety, and welfare identify that investigations should help in preventing future adverse events occurring and importantly to ‘ensure that corrective action is taken, learning is shared, and any necessary improvements are put in place.’

HSG 245 – Investigating accidents and incidents, is the HSE’s guide for employers, unions, safety representatives and safety professionals. The guide includes an explanation on language which includes identifying that;

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What is striking about the content of the information provided is it is predominantly focused on the outcome of adverse events affecting people. Of course it does and indeed should!

It is a shift in paradigm, but as a UK FRS employee who unconditionally believes in our vision, the question that I ask myself now is; are fire scene inspections an untapped holistic (Prevention, Protection and Community Resilience) person centered ‘Community Safety Goal’ mine’? This question is as relevant to commercial organisations that undertake fire scene inspections (e.g. on behalf of insurance companies or in support of criminal investigations) as it is for a FRS.

For fire scenes that are attended by a FRS, there is a duty placed on Fire and Rescue Authorities (FRA) by section 45 of the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 (the FRA) to obtain information and investigate fires’…for the purpose of investigating what caused the fire or why it progressed as it did’. This is in relation to discharging our core functions of fire-fighting, road traffic accidents, and emergencies (other than fires and road traffic accidents).

There is one other core function in the FRA, which is perhaps more significant than the other three, but that an FRA is not duty bound to report against when undertaking fire scene inspections – that being Fire Safety. This core function requires us to ‘…promote fire safety…’and to provide’…information, publicity and encouragement in respect of the steps to be taken to prevent fires and death or injury by fire’.

ISO 17020

In my last article, “Information quality in building morbidity and mortality” I highlighted how Building Information Modelling (BIM) can provide consistently high quality and comprehensible information throughout the full life cycle of a building from design conception through to grave, assisting all stakeholders to maintain a common operating picture particularly during occupation.

A goal mine opportunity as a result of a fire scene inspection can occur throughout the life-cycle of a premises, including the design conception stage even, and when a premises is merely a line on a design drawing plan. As a fire (and although not given ample cognisance but just as useful – a near miss) and therefore investigating and reporting afterwards is a reasonably foreseeable event, duty holders, responsible persons, and competent persons should give sufficient consideration as to how design and occupant information might be proactively provided to the scene investigator(s) as an organisational policy arrangement. 

In terms of the building itself, the outputs of a fire scene inspection are not to allocate blame. In practice a fire scene investigator attempts to identify the most probable cause and progression from the origin. Whether that be as the result of an incident that ends up in the criminal justice system such as a hate crime, or due to a high loss (such as financial, environment, heritage) incident, or any other circumstances deemed appropriate, the aim is to support the goals that regulators, insurers, and business owners share; that being to design the safest, resilient, and most sustainable built environment possible correcting defects where identified.

Notwithstanding significant losses such as environmental, financial, and national heritage, the unfortunate event of a fire provides us with not only the opportunity to report against passive and active building characteristics (when it is in the built environment) at any point in a buildings life cycle, but it also fortuitously provides us with the opportunity to report from an occupant centred ‘conception to grave’ life cycle perspective as well, and also gain historical and incident information that can help to shape future community safety activities, processes and practices.

The identification of missed opportunities together with learning & improvement are the key outcomes we desire to realise along with the hard to measure impacts we hope to accomplish. There may also be a known or believed hypothesis to support the inspection.

A wider conception to grave lens that focuses on those occupying a premises will provide increased benefit focused Prevention and Community Safety/Resilience outcomes for FRS service delivery strategies. It will also provide improved learning within the wider multi-agency partnership tactical environment that is already established in forums such as Community Safety Partnerships, Integrated Care Systems, Safeguarding Adults Reviews, and Child Safeguarding Practice Reviews. The types of benefits, improvements, and enhancements that could be realised appertaining to occupants, the built environment, and management centred might include;

1. Awareness of current and evolving societal and community needs, issues, hazards, and risks
2. Identification of challenges caused due to characteristic vulnerabilities of people relating to the design and use of large domestic appliances
3. Identification of local community support needs relating to awareness, information, education, and training
4. Understanding of hate crimes and hate incidents
5. Understanding of meeting the Public Sector Equality Duty for improved outcomes and impacts under the Equalities Act 2010
6. National, regional, local societal and community inclusion outcomes and impacts
7. Product and domestic appliance (large and small) safety
8. Manufacturers improvements
9. Integration and development of cross-discipline best practice and guidance
10. Improvement and development of codes of practice and guidance
11. Improved fire safety management and arrangements (particularly testing and maintenance procedures)
12. Understanding of the risks to which relevant persons are exposed for the purpose of identifying the general fire precautions
13. Identification of new or additional necessary contact with external emergency services, particularly as regards fire-fighting, rescue work, first-aid, and emergency medical care
14. Information to support the appointment of competent persons and their ongoing training and information provided to support their capabilities
15. Organisational fire safety policy positions
16. Preventive and protective measures
17. Passive and active fire safety measures including remedial works
18. Provision of fixed installations and facilities including management of
19. Multi-agency intervention strategies
20. Focused public messaging for FRS communications and engagement strategies
21. Multi-agency Prevention, Protection and Community Resilience communication strategies
22. Recommendations for better regulation
23. Decision making for the commissioning of integrated multi-agency service delivery
24. Richness of learning and integration when a FRS undertakes their planned fatal fire conferences (or similar event), and
25. Sector specific local, regional, and national learning
26. Business Continuity Management and planning
27. Performance in undertaking fire scene/near miss inspection and reporting.

I think it if fair to say that Fire and Rescue Services up and down the UK, and indeed all public services have been facing significant financial efficiency challenges for many years that have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Many FRS are dealing with significant reforms through their Integrated Risk Management Planning and are having to underpin this with resourcing and/or savings programmes to adapt to an ever-challenging service delivery environment that includes a smaller cost envelope within which to deliver against demand, Drivers such as; the extended inspection regime of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) which happened in 2017, the need to improve assurance, performance reporting, the sector spotlight that is currently upon us through the ongoing Grenfell Tower enquiry, together with an increasingly political drive to business, have added to those challenges and will continue to do so.

Those drivers, particularly the new remit of the HMICFRS inspections which principally focus on the service provided to the public and assess how well a FRS prevent, protect against, and respond to fires and other emergencies provide us with an opportunity to improve our effectiveness and efficiencies creatively and innovatively to;

• understands current and future risks
• work to prevent fires and other risks
• protect the public through the regulation of fire safety
• use the resources we are custodians of to manage risk, and
• secure affordable ways of providing our service (now and in the future)

Whilst the hazards and risks associated with our built environments seem to change, the outputs of Fire Scene inspections could be a real game changer for developing multi-agency outcomes and impacts that holistically better future proof society from fires, hazards, risks and other issues. From a FRS sector point of view, if done sufficiently cognisant with the inspection regime of the HMICFRS, the ability to not only demonstrate performance improvements, positive outcomes and impacts but also to realise significant benefits could be delivered as highlighted in the box below.

1. Engagement with local communities to build up a comprehensive risk profile
2. Defining the level of community risk, including those communities most at risk, harder-to-reach, hidden or affecting the most vulnerable people and safeguarding as necessary
3. Liaison with relevant bodies to ensure a common understanding of risk including fire standards
4. Information on risk communicated throughout the FRS
5. Results of operational activity used to ensure a common understanding of risk
6. Identification and assessment of current, emerging, or future changes in the risk of fire and other risks
7. Preventive activity focused on those most at risk
8. Campaigns to prevent fires and promote community safety
9. Working with partners to tackle fire setting behaviour and support the prosecution of arsonists
10. Command of fire service assets at incidents
11. Communicating information about incidents to the public
12. Exchange learning with other FRS and regulators
13. Supporting the establishment of site-specific response plans for high-risk premises
14. Intraoperability with other FRS
15. Addressing risks identified in integrated risk management plans (possibly soon to be Community Risk Management Plans)
16. Exploration of opportunities for collaboration within and beyond the fire and rescue sector
17. Making the best use of the opportunities in response to hazards and risks
18. Understanding the skills and capabilities of its workforce and ensuring the right mix

In the list of benefits earlier in this article I have highlighted how a wider lens during fire scene inspections may deliver mutli-sector holistic improved and enhanced inclusion focused benefits. Currently in the UK there is a lack of people of a female gender identity practicing in the forensic discipline of fire scene inspection. We need more female identifying fire investigators.

But to do that, there needs to be work undertaken on promoting the applicability STEM (Science, technology, engineering, & mathematics) studies to a career in forensic disciplines such as fire investigation in secondary and tertiary education. If we can do that then we can support the Department of Education’s goal to increase the number of female identifying students choosing STEM subjects, which will subsequently impact positively on the UK Governments goal of increasing the number of people that identify as women choosing STEM careers.

Camilla Gosling, Senior Associate at Hawkins & Associates said: “As someone who works in the private sector, the majority of the fire investigations undertaken by Hawkins are for the insurance industry. The purpose of our investigations compared with those in the FRS are complementary but different. Our role is to primarily identify the cause of the fire for insurers so that a claim can be processed. Although we have less of a public role within the wider community, through our investigations, insurers have been able to issue requirements so that improved safety measures in relation to fire safety and prevention have been undertaken as well as have an affect on the design of appliances and informing manufacturers of any trends.

“Similar to the FRS, fire investigation at Hawkins has traditionally been a male-dominated role and despite doing a similar job to the FRS we historically have different backgrounds as a degree in a STEM subject is required. This requirement again reduces the number of females applying for roles. When I took my Chemistry degree there was a rough 50:50 split between men and women, but many (both men and women) chose not to continue with scientific careers. During my degree I realised that a life in the laboratory was not for me, but I wanted to use my degree and fire investigation allowed me to apply the knowledge and skills that I had accrued.

“In the private sector we often work closely with the various FRS because it takes time for the insurance industry to involve us, normally by which time the fire has been extinguished. However, we have the time and the facilities to be able to carry out more detailed investigations, particularly in relation to any electrical aspects and can provide feedback to the FRS in relation to our findings.”

In an ever changing and aging society that all public services are continuously striving to understand so that we can better meet the needs, issues, hazards, and risks of, making the most of an occupant centred fire scene inspection has perhaps never been more important to ensure we are sufficiently working together to reduce harm and save lives. That has got to be good for UK plc, and wider, earth plc.

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