What PAS 9980 means for the UK fire industry and what happens next
Mike Fox, Founder of MAF Associates and one of the UK’s leading fire experts, explains what PAS 9980 is, how it will work, and what it means in practice.
I expect that we will come to look back on January 2022 and the publication of PAS 9980 as the moment when the government finally abandoned short-termism in its post-Grenfell approach to legislation and regulation, and began to focus on long terms outcomes. This does not mean that the crisis is over, far from it, but at least we now have some idea of what needs to be done to overcome it.
Since June 2017, the approach has very much been one of reaction to the news agenda public opinion and investigations such as the Hackitt Report, which have often been necessary and welcome, but have also led to confusion and uncertainty in a fire industry that has often seemed like a rabbit in the headlights; knowing that something needs to be done, but not quite sure what it is, and constantly wondering if things will change again tomorrow.
Whilst many buildings have been fully remediated, stripped of defective cladding, or at least fitted with upgraded fire and evacuation systems, a clear long-term strategy from the government has long been needed. This finally came with the Fire Safety Act 2021, which showed us the direction of travel, and now PAS 9980 is showing us how to get there. It’s not perfect, and there are still questions to be answered, but at least it’s a start.
“I expect that we will come to look back on January 2022 and the publication of PAS 9980 as the moment when the government finally abandoned short-termism in its post-Grenfell approach to legislation and regulation”
What is PAS 9980?
PAS 9980 is a new code of practice for England and Wales, prescribing how the fire risk appraisal of the external wall construction in all residential buildings of multiple occupation – ie. Two units or more – should be conducted. In particular, it outlines how the cladding of existing multi-storey buildings should be treated and defines what is, and what is not, fit for purpose. The primary purpose of the FSA 2021 and PAS 9980 is to close a loophole, made glaringly obvious by the Grenfell fire, that left external walls beyond the scope of fire risk assessments.
Developed by a government-appointed steering group of experts in the fields of construction, fire, housing and safety, the code is intended solely for use by certified fire engineers and other similarly qualified building professionals who are undertaking a fire risk appraisal of external walls. It governs not only the materials that should be used for cladding, where it is present, but also the method of installation and how it interacts with other elements of the building’s construction.
The methodology set out in PAS9980 uses a five-step assessment process to help the assessor to identify all risk factors and assign a risk rating to the building. The guidance is scalable according to the size and complexity of each individual building, and it is worth noting that not all buildings will require and a full and intrusive external risk assessment, although this is a judgement that only a qualified expert should make. In the interests of resolving any issues, provision is also made for the assessor to outline any steps that can, or must, be taken to remediate the building.
Finally, and also welcome, PAS 9980 gives clear guidance on the skills and competence of individuals needed to undertake fit and proper assessments under the new rules. This is important as it is a vital cog in rebuilding trust in the fire industry, but also presents challenges as it emphasises the great shortage of people with the right skills and qualifications; an issue which is going to take some years to resolve, even with a new-found dedication to training and CPD across the industry.
While PAS 9980 will almost certainly create more work for external fire risk assessors and chartered engineers, it may conversely reduce the workload of those charged with putting right problems such as defective cladding, compromised external voids, etc. This is because, in the absence of definitive guidance, many perfectly competent experts have chosen to err on the side of caution, resulting in increased, and sometimes unnecessary, expenses for building owners and leaseholders.
The publication of the PAS 9980 was accompanied by the withdrawal of the Consolidated Advice Note (CAN), which was introduced by the Government’s Independent Expert Advisory Panel in the immediate aftermath of Grenfell and which, while well-intentioned at the time, has come to be viewed as overzealous by many in the fire and construction industries. This means that the measures building owners should take to review cladding and fire safety are now more measured, which should reduce the need for superfluous expenditure in future, allowing fire risk assessors and building owners to focus their efforts, and funds, where they are most needed.
“If we take an over-cautious approach to building safety, this not only takes up precious resources among fire industry experts, but also among skilled construction engineers and operatives”
In his speech on the launch of PAS 9980, Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities argued that “too many buildings are declared unsafe [by those] seeking to profit from the current crisis”. On the contrary, I would argue that these recommendations have most often been made by qualified experts who are either unsure of the precise meaning of current guidelines, or nervous about signing off a building that one of their colleagues might designate as being ‘at risk’.
Regardless of the motivation, if we take an over-cautious approach to building safety, beyond what is necessary, this not only takes up precious resources among fire industry experts, but also among skilled construction engineers and operatives, so the fact that PAS 9980 gives clear standards and directives is very welcome.
The Challenges facing PAS 9980
With millions of people across the UK still living in blighted buildings almost five years after Grenfell, many of whom are unable to afford the required remediation works, or have chosen to take on their developers or management companies in court, a lot is riding on the ability of PAS 9980 to push things forward.
Some buildings that were labelled high risk under the CAN may no longer be considered dangerous under the PAS 9980 guidance, but even in these cases it will take months or years to get every building reappraised and off the danger list. It’s also feasible, although less likely, that some buildings that were previously considered safe, could be classed as ‘at risk’ under the new guidelines.
As I touched on above, the biggest challenge for the industry is to meet demand for external fire risk assessments, and particularly intrusive cladding surveys. As an example, let’s take the internal vertical voids that were created between the original walls and the cladding on Grenfell Tower, and which later became a primary factor in the rapid transmission of the fire. Issues like this cannot be identified by a simple visual check, even by the most experienced expert, and will require scaffolding, safety gear or even a crane to identify, as well as being far more time-intensive for the assessor.
Even deciding whether a detailed external FRA is needed at all is subjective and open to interpretation, which means that you may have to hire an expert simply to tell you that you don’t need an expert. This will depend on numerous factors such as the age of the building, the age and makeup of the cladding, the method of installation and the construction of the wall behind.
Then there is the question of what will make a building ‘at risk’. While most buildings with defective cladding have now been identified, it still needs to be correctly and professionally installed, even where the cladding is not combustible. If legal cladding needs to be removed and refitted in order to remedy an installation issue, such as the way it is fitted or to remove dangerous voids, this could cost almost as much as replacing defective cladding.
While PAS 9980 is welcome, most challenges it presents can be overcome with consultation and clarification, the biggest barrier to success is the chronic lack of qualified personnel to monitor and enforce it. There are only five or six companies in the UK able to offer a comprehensive external fire risk assessment service, MAF Associates being one of them, and I think together we will struggle to fulfil 10% of current demand.
“There are only five or six companies in the UK able to offer a comprehensive external fire risk assessment service.”
The £700,000 allocated by the government to train new assessors is frankly insulting and, although the industry is doing all it can to boost skills and training, a proper strategy to address this problem should have been devised alongside the new guidelines. You can’t simply ask an internal fire risk assessor to take a short course and add external assessments to their skillset. It can be done, but we’re talking years, rather than months.
The process of enforcing the FSA 2021, making all buildings compliant with PAS 9980 and remediating all problem buildings is going to take years, and the government needs to understand this. It can be done, and the fire industry is committed to it, but the government need to put in the resources needed to boost training, professional development and skills, not only in the fire sector, but also in construction and other related industries.