fire risk assessment

You might have seen the reports in the news last month about the court case that took place in relation to a hotel fire that occurred in Scotland in December 2017. A fire broke out at Cameron House, situated next to Loch Lomond. Tragically two guests died as a result of smoke and fire gas inhalation.

The fire had started as a consequence of the night porter putting a plastic bag containing ash and embers into a cupboard that also had flammable materials in it including kindling, newspapers and cardboard. Just under 3 hours after he had done that, smoke was spotted coming from the cupboard. The porter opened the door and the flames immediately spread into the hall. The porter and two others attempted to tackle the blaze with fire extinguishers, but the fire spread too quickly for them to contain.

The consequences of failing to effectively implement fire safety actions

The hotel had brought in an independent company in both 2016 and 2017 to conduct fire risk assessments. But what then followed was a catalogue of failures to implement the actions identified – and that ultimately led to the tragic events in December.

The fire risk assessment had highlighted the need to create a formal procedure for ash disposal. The resort manager had delegated the responsibility to his deputy. When the issue was raised the following year, managers were under the impression all required actions including the creation of the procedure had been done. But it hadn’t. No written procedures existed and staff had not had proper training.

In addition to this, the hotel had not taken action following specific advice from the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service in August 2017 to ensure combustible materials were not stored in the concierge cupboard. Its audit had referred to the substantial risk of fire being able to spread rapidly through the hotel due to the age of the building and the many voids within it. Management even received a follow-up letter in November 2017 on the subject but combustible materials continued to be kept in the cupboard.

The ash bins outside the hotel had not been emptied since October 2017 and were both full. As a consequence, the porters had started putting ash into plastic bags. Three nights prior to the fatal fire they had been told not to do it as it was a fire hazard but had continued with the practice.

Fire safety does not end with the completion of a fire risk assessment

This is a stark and utterly tragic illustration of the fact that ensuring fire safety is not simply about going through the process of fire risk assessment; it is about the outcomes of the assessment and how effectively they are then translated into meaningful and comprehensive action in a timely way. A fire risk assessment doesn’t save lives: what saves lives are the actions that people take as a consequence of its findings. The failure to take the steps identified by the Fire and Rescue Service and risk assessors is shocking in the context of what then happened. But was Cameron House unique in having overlooked fire safety actions that needed to be taken, or having assumed someone else had sorted them, or having put them on the “do-another-day” list? No. Almost certainly not.

The tragedy is also another reminder of just how critical it is to take steps that make sure employees fully grasp the importance of their own role within fire safety. It’s absolutely fundamental that they appreciate the consequences of failing to do so to ensure they understand the need to engage properly with their responsibilities. That requires providing them with the right training in the first instance, but it also means taking steps to integrate fire safety into everyday thinking.

A fire risk assessment is only ever the first step

Cameron House pleaded guilty to the charges under the Fire Scotland Act and the porter who put the bag in the cupboard admitted breaching the Health and Safety at Work Act. The sentencing took place on the 29th January. The hotel received a fine of half a million pounds and the porter was given a community payback order of 300 hours unpaid work.

But it is of course the families of the two men who will continue to suffer the most. This incident is an appalling reminder of why the essential activity of carrying out fire risk assessments must never be viewed as an end in itself. A fire risk assessment is of fundamental importance, but it is only the first step of a dynamic process that everyone must feel a continued sense of responsibility for and ownership of and therefore act on accordingly.

With many people not currently occupying their usual workplace, there is a genuine risk of taking your eye off the ball when it comes to fire safety. Even if you are not using your work premises at the moment, don’t let it drift down the agenda. Every business, company and organisation must continue to fulfil their legal and moral responsibilities to ensure that when people are able to return, they are entering an environment that is protected from fire risks. If you need some help with this, please contact us for further advice.