Legal compliance a thorny issue in the fire industry

August 2010 Fire & Safety

Hi-Tech Security Solutions spoke to a number of companies about the current state of the fire industry with regard to standards, regulations, training and new technology and trends. There is no doubt that a certain level of frustration exists within the industry but in general the mood is upbeat with participants agreeing that there have been a number of mindset shifts within the customer bases.

Playing by the rules

Although the Department of Labour’s (DoL) gazetted regulation regarding ‘Fire precautions and means of egress’ does not make more than cursory mention of recommended fire detection, suppression or prevention methods, compliance to this bylaw falls under the gambit of the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA).

According to the DoL, under the OHS Act, all employers have a legal and moral obligation to ensure the safety of their employees and anyone visiting their premises. The 1994 Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) gives employees the right to a healthy and safe working environment and non-compliance can result in stiff penalties.

Policing of installations is extremely difficult however, given the large portfolio each DoL inspector has to cover. What is becoming increasingly apparent is that the fire industry needs to assume a self-regulatory role in order to preserve an image of professional and ethical practice.

Risk assessments

A very pressing question which needs to be answered by every employer is: 'What kind of fire strategy do you have in place and does it comply with legislation?' It is advisable for property developers and owners to implement a comprehensive risk assessment for each building, whether it is an existing or planned building. Assessment of the fire/smoke/gas detection, suppression and prevention equipment requirements is crucial at the planning stages and should incorporate an allowance for installation by approved installers.

Jan Fritz, MD of Safequip reiterated this point: “When you consider that 70% of businesses in South Africa which experience fire damage either fail to reopen, or close within three years after a fire, taking the time to do a fire risk assessment makes sense. Apart from the financial benefits to be gained from preventing the break out of fires, doing so is a legal requirement.”

Keith Norgate, owner of Fire Systems Training, has some concerns about the risk assessment process. “Under the regulations contained within the new Construction Charter, a safety file needs to be compiled for each individual site. Unfortunately, the document is extremely onerous, and once an assessment has supposedly taken place, who is actually going to police this?”

Indeed, the risk assessment presumes that the end user willingly buys into the process. While opinions are slowly changing and businesses are beginning to see the advantages of being proactive with regard to installing fire detection and prevention systems, there is still a pervasive attitude in the market place that this is deemed a grudge purchase.

Trevor Harty, GM at Technoswitch, believes that the driving force for compliance right now is not so much the generalised OHS regulations, but rather the increasing pressure being brought to bear by the larger insurance companies. “The FDIA (Fire Detection Installers Association) has been in ongoing negotiations with these companies and there is definitely a mindset shift in terms of persuading their clients to upgrade and maintain their fire systems.

“The industry is trying to formalise some type of agreement whereby those clients who conform to regulations in terms of approved installations, which are undertaken and regularly checked by government approved installers, are incentivised by the insurer. Keeping a log book for each installation is a perfect way to monitor this,” Harty added.

Laura Swart, owner of Red G and ex chairperson of the FDIA, is more cautiously optimistic. “Unfortunately, fire prevention is a very small portfolio in the insurance companies’ overall risk equation. They do however recognise FDIA as a valid governing body in the industry and are upping the ante with regard to installers who do not hold FDIA status. This is a step in the right direction but I do not think we have reached the point where premium reductions for complying clients are on the table.”

Jason Whitson, a director at DevTrade, said that his company had identified two definite trends in this respect. “On the one hand we have the building owners who, in general, purchase systems which meet the absolute minimum requirements specified by the insurance companies. On the flip side of the coin, however, are the IT guys who clearly state and abide by their intent to protect their mission-critical systems at any cost.

“If this latter attitude towards purchasing fire systems was adopted by all, companies would soon see that the benefits are derived in a lack of the excessive downtime which occurs when fire ravages businesses. While an insurance company may pay out for the bricks and mortar and the material possessions in the building, they generally (unless a specialised policy is purchased) do not pay for costs incurred due to downtime of the operation. By having a high-quality, approved integrated system in place, any probable damage would be averted,” he explained.

Rules, regulations and standards

Norgate pointed out that the continuing process of trying to establish registration of fire technicians has once again reached an impasse. “The Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA), for the fourth time, has refused to accept registration of technicians engaged in fire detection or gaseous extinguishing systems.”

He said that an agreement was struck between the South African Qualification & Certification Committee (SAQCC) Fire and a working group at ECSA provided for registration of cablers, installers and first line commissioning technicians with SAQCC Fire, and commissioning technician’s level 2, designers and inspectors registering with ECSA.

“However, even though the SAQCC Fire has completed its task of defining qualifications and experience levels for registration, the board of ECSA has not come to an agreement to provide a specialised category of Fire Engineering. It seems that for now they will only recognise electrical installers/technicians as deemed competent,” Norgate said.

Both the FDIA and the SAQCC Fire are urging a meeting with the Department of Labour to clarify the position and meanwhile ECSA are to continue with the process of accepting fire as an engineering discipline.

Harty said that he believes that because the current standards and regulations for the installation of fire detections systems are so rigorous, if they are used in conjunction with SANS 0400, they could almost qualify as legislation. “However, at present they can be deemed only as suggestions for good practice and are therefore open to interpretation.”

See Table 1 for a comprehensive list of industry regulations and standards.

Table 1. South African National Standards (SANS)
Table 1. South African National Standards (SANS)

Training and competency

Norgate expressed frustration at the fine print within the new Construction Regulations. “While they call for everyone involved in some way in the construction industry to be deemed competent, in terms of our current negotiations, or lack thereof with the DoL, the fire industry is automatically excluded.”

Another frustration voiced by Norgate is the lack of momentum in the approval process at both the local government and setas of the relevant unit standards and learnerships required for the industry. The SAQCC is in the process of developing training courses that are recognised by the South African Qualification Authority (SAQA) and unit standards have been submitted to the standard generating body but to date there has been little progress.

Is the installer competent?

Both Harty and Whitson agree that building owners or property developers should make use of certified installers, citing an ongoing problem with substandard cabling. “It is very difficult to ascertain after installation is completed whether a slightly smaller cable than the original is used,” Whitson clarified. “Tracing any future problems back to inferior products is difficult and time consuming and presupposes that there will be enough evidence left after a fire has run its path of destruction.”

All interviewees agreed that the biggest problem here is that the less ethical installers are often awarded contracts based on their lower tender price. “These people are often not members of the FDIA and as such are not obligated to conform to the ethics of being a member. This ultimately means that they can use inferior or less suitable and lower-spec products, which generally cost less than either an industry-approved or higher-spec product,” Whitson said.

Norgate is horrified by the high level of incompetence and shoddy workmanship he encounters when doing inspections for clients. “Out of the 100 inspections I have done recently, only seven of them passed muster. This means that a great majority of installations in the field are not compliant with the codes of practice and their functionality therefore questionable.”

Nichola Allan at G2 Security is more positive about the situation. “Awareness of the standards is definitely growing. More end users are demanding qualified installers and compliant equipment. It is key that both the equipment and the person installing the equipment are qualified for the job, as people’s lives are at stake.

“I have completed the FDIA training and recommend it to all of my installers. Not only does it cover the issues of what is legally required to comply with SANS 10139 parts 1 and 2, but overall it gives an excellent understanding of what a fire alarm is, and why and how it should be used. So often people get so tied up in the technologies that they miss the very essence of ‘fire detection’,” Allan added.

The ideal situation is one where the developers or building owners are educated on the necessity of following certain procedures to ensure a quality installation from start to finish. The risk assessment would ascertain the best installation for each specific building. This would then be followed by the selection of industry-approved equipment which is matched to the correct specifications for the site.

Following this, an approved installer would be responsible for ensuring the installation itself is conducted according to specifications. Trained people within the organisation should be appointed to undertake regular, preliminary inspections to ensure that even the smallest problems are identified. In conjunction with this, regular inspections and maintenance on the systems should be conducted by approved inspectors.

Allan said there are many different types of systems which match the various installations. “Smaller systems are best used with conventional panels and then the larger systems need to progress to addressable systems. Which system is chosen depends greatly on the functionality required. Most small businesses can have easy-to-use and cost-effective conventional systems that provide excellent functionality without the cost or complexities of the larger addressable systems.

“The main advantage of the addressable systems comes when they are covering large buildings. Panels can be networked together which provides consistent coverage and notification of events in other sections across very large areas,” Allan said. “It is also a good idea, whether it is a small or a large system installation, to consider using a voice evacuation system. People, especially in crisis situations, react more readily to voice commands than to audible alarms,” Whitson added.

What is hot?

According to Harty, the industry does not change at a rapid pace.

“However, there are definite trend shifts and we are seeing products which are being produced for integration into other security systems, as well as products which are being engineered to reduce their overall carbon footprint.”

Allan said that most installations require optical smoke detectors which ‘see’ the smoke from a fire and sound the alarm. “Heat and ion detectors are still used but not as frequently.

In most instances, optical detectors are quicker to detect a fire. Heat detectors are used in specific areas where the fire may not create smoke and ion detectors are being phased out, with many manufacturers no longer making them as they contain a slight radioactive element.

“In order for any fire installation to be compliant with regulations there must be a manual call point (also known as a breakglass unit). These allow people to break the glass to sound the alert for a fire, and these are sold with every fire panel,” Allan added.

Whitson said that they have seen an increasing demand for aspirating smoke detectors. “The IT departments in companies are renowned for their research into the most suitable products to protect their systems. This has filtered down into selection of advanced smoke and fire detection instruments which are able to guarantee a faster response time to threat.

“We have also noted that companies are becoming increasingly aware of the need to install environmentally friendly products. This has meant a noted decrease in the number of CO2 systems on the market, which results in a reduction in the risk of unwanted discharge harmful to human life and a reduction in emissions into the atmosphere,” Whitson said.

Harty said that his company had seen a flurry of sales of its aerosol generator fire suppression units. “Upon activation, the generators produce an exceptionally effective, ultra-fine, potassium based aerosol. Aerosol generators do not require pressure vessels, piping or expensive installation. Fire suppression is rapidly achieved through interference between the ultra-fine aerosol particulate and the flame’s free radicals – terminating propagation of the fire.”

Lauren Sher from Xtralis, says the company has seen a definite increase in the demand for aspirating smoke detection.

Do fire systems integrate?

“Fire alarm systems do not develop at the same rate as other security technologies, as the essence of what they do is still very basic. The newer technologies connect to computer systems for programming and have become more user friendly. Most of the advancements in the individual devices are dictated by standard and regulations, as it is vital for manufacturers to make their equipment compliant to as many international standards as possible,” Allan said.

“Integration comes in many levels. All panels are capable of giving discrete outputs to indicate an alarm, but at the moment clever engineering is required to report more detailed information. One of the issues that has delayed the development of fire alarm integration is the fact that as a life safety device, regulations state that using alerts via a computer (especially one that runs on Windows) is not acceptable. Fire panels are built to be super reliable and part of the regulations state that it must be visible in a prominent position.”

Both Sher and Whitson said that most of the products manufactured by the larger suppliers have been engineered to integrate with both their own product line as well as most other renowned systems on the market.

“The problem arises with the products from emerging or niche manufacturers, whose budget has not allowed for the development of software drivers for full integration into other safety and security systems,” said Whitson.

“In these instances, it would then be necessary for these smaller suppliers to have software written to make their products compatible,” Sher added.

“My advice would be to source products that are integratable out of the box. This is where the consultants can play a huge role and I would urge them to be open to learning more from reputable suppliers about what best suits the application,” said Whitson.

Whitson said that while each subsystem needs to be able to perform its own detection, monitoring and regulation tasks, there should be one element, such as the Building Management System, which is able to provide overall monitoring of the system and communicate accordingly with each subsystem for immediate response.

It would seem that, as with other industries in South Africa, the fire industry is plagued by a number of unethical operators who constantly and consistently win contract awards based on pricing alone.

While education of building owners and company employers is critical to ensure foreknowledge of the risks involved in using inferior products and the services of inexperienced and lackadaisical installers, this is not enough. The industry needs buy-in from both government and the local government seta to bring pressure to bear on non-compliant operators. By endorsing the use of FDIA approved products and installers, government will be contributing to the upholding of basic OHS principles.

Who’s who?

Department of Labour (DoL) – Promulgation of OHS legislation.

Fire Detection Installers Association (FDIA) – Provides representation and leadership to the fire detection and gaseous extinguishing system industries.

Institution of Fire Engineers – International qualifying organisation and learned society for fire engineering and fire safety professionals.

Fire Fighting Equipment Traders Association – Promotes high standards in equipment, workmanship, maintenance and service.

Fire Protection Association of Southern Africa (FPASA) – Active in the provision of training courses and specialised technical services to facilitate better fire safety and the reduction of the loss of life and damage to property caused by fire. Participates on SABS technical committee for the draughting and adoption of standards related to fire safety.

South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) – Independent standardisation services to protect both the integrity of the South African market and the consumer.

South African National Accreditation System (SANAS) – Single national accreditation body.

South African Qualification and Certification Committee (SAQCC) – Establishment of procedures for the qualification and certification of all personnel involved in the production, service and repair of fire fighting equipment. Ensures regulation and competence of fire service technicians in accordance with SANS 1475.

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