In June of 2017, a fire broke out in London’s Grenfell Tower, reportedly caused by a malfunctioning refrigerator on a lower floor. The blaze spread incredibly fast — quickly consuming large portions of the residential complex and eventually claiming more than 70 lives.
While this would have been a tragedy under any circumstances, the event drew even more attention when investigation revealed that the fire’s abnormal speed and ferocity could be blamed on highly flammable cladding and insulation that had been installed as part of a recent renovation.
According to a report released earlier this year, “the fire might have been avoided if construction crews had complied with certain safety measures during the renovation.” Specifically, the report noted, “the building's cavity barriers were too small and incorrectly installed, creating a path for the fire instead of stopping it like the barriers were supposed to do. A lack of door closers also allowed the fire to burn through the building at a rapid pace, as did the gaps in window frames and the makeshift fillers stuffed inside of them.”
This tragedy spurred a new effort to establish a simple, comprehensive set of fire safety standards that can be adopted internationally, to hopefully help reduce the possibility of something like the Grenfell Tower blaze from happening again. And, the International Fire Safety Standards (IFSS) coalition aims to create those standards.
But, as you already know, this has been attempted before. An International Fire Code (IFC) already exists, as do numerous fire and safety codes that are followed at the national level around the world. So, what can this new effort accomplish? And, what is likely to be the impact of this new set of standards on your construction business?
What is the purpose of the IFSS coalition?
First, let’s take a look at the purpose of the IFSS and how their goals and plans differ from the standards currently in play.
Gary Strong is the global building standards director of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) — an internationally recognized body that has established standards to regulate the surveying practice — as well as the chairman of the newly-established IFSS coalition. In a seminar held earlier this year, he outlined the purpose of the IFSS and how they propose to accomplish it:
“(The IFSS) is a new, high level international set of standards that aims to provide greater clarity and consistency globally in the application of fire safety to buildings at a project, state, national, regional or international level. It sets out high level principles that any person involved in the design, construction or managing of a building globally would be proud to be associated with.”
The key to this lofty goal seems to be the term “high level.” In other words, the standards the IFSS coalition intends to establish are unlikely to dig down into the tiniest black and white details of measurement, material selection, and the like. Rather, the standards will establish broader principles on which all government agencies, civic engineers, construction professionals, firefighters, and lay people can agree on, worldwide.
Not an easy goal to strive for, but certainly an impressive one.
Why is such an international set of standards needed?
As noted above, an international fire safety standard already technically exists in the IFC. However, that standard has never reached the level of adoption required to promote real global change. In fact, outside the United States (where it runs neck-and-neck with the NFPA-1 as the go-to standard at the state, regional, and local levels) the IFC has made little impact thus far.
Strong went on to explain, “differences in materials testing and certification, national building regulations/codes, and guidance on how to manage buildings in use — particularly higher risk buildings — means there is confusion, uncertainty and risk to the public. Multiple differing standards means there is no standard… Research has shown that inconsistent approaches to the assessment and regulation of fire safety can lead to loss of life in extreme cases through to a loss of confidence in buildings by governments, financiers, investors and the public.”
Looking back at the history of the IFC, Strong’s words ring true: The IFC was created in 1994 by combining three of the four nationally-recognized fire safety codes active at the time in the United States. The fourth active code (the NFPA-1) resisted inclusion, and remains as the only real alternative for U.S. jurisdictions and organizations to consider adopting. Both these standard organizations have made their standards available internationally for any and all to adopt and adapt as needed, but the fact is, no one else has.
That’s why the goal of the IFSS is to initiate the entire standard-setting process on the international level:
“For the first time at a global collaborative level, IFSS will introduce a set of standards that will bring greater consistency of minimum levels of fire safety and professionalism across the world.”
To accomplish this, the IFSS coalition currently includes over 30 different agencies and organizations from several different countries, and it continues to grow. Each member organization has committed to promote and implement the resulting standards and to encourage their respective world markets and governments to adopt them.
If the IFSS coalition can accomplish these lofty goals as stated, they have a far greater chance of successfully establishing truly international fire safety standards than any previous body that’s attempted to do so.
What are the likely impacts on YOUR business?
Of course, most construction companies already adhere to one or more fire safety standards already, usually based on the jurisdictions in which they operate and/or the preferences of their target clients. Yours is likely the same.
So, even if the IFSS coalition succeeds and the resulting standards are adopted globally, will it make a noticeable difference to your day-to-day operations? In fact, it probably will. Here are some likely impacts of widespread international adoption of the IFSS:
Operational efficiency - A broadly adopted set of standards will make it faster and easier for companies to plan and implement compliance measures over the long term. With everyone referencing the same set of principles, estimating, materials purchasing, prefabrication, building, and inspection scheduling can all be streamlined. This will especially be felt in organizations large enough to currently have to deal with different standards in different regions where they’re bidding for jobs.
Enhanced geographic growth - For the same reasons, companies pursuing work across local, state, and national borders will find it easier to do so without a different set of fire safety standards complicating the process.
Better standardization in fabrication - This technically falls under operational efficiency, but its impact is potentially so great, it deserves its own bullet point. Prefabrication continues to be a huge cost and quality control opportunity for modern construction companies who are increasingly relying on BIM-related technology. With universal fire safety standards in place, the design and fabrication of building components becomes that much easier and faster, since all will be built to the same fire-related specifications.
There are doubtless more impacts that will become clearer as creation and adoption of the IFSS progresses. But, with these impacts in mind, it’s clear that construction companies the world over need to watch these developments closely and prepare accordingly. It’s not unreasonable to assume that a successful implementation of the IFSS could spark the creation of similar international standards for other aspects of building and design as well.
Is your company positioned to benefit from the establishment of international fire safety standards? Now is the time to effectively answer that important question.