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Fire chiefs raise alarm on skills gap

London Fire Brigade chiefs have lambasted a “general lack of competence” among building designers and construction companies in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire and have demanded formal qualifications and accreditation for anyone installing “life-saving systems like smoke ventilation”.

Tony Howard, training director at BESA.

“There will be an increase in serious building fires unless the construction industry starts to take fire safety more seriously,” said an LFB submission to Dame Judith Hackitt’s independent review into building regulation and fire safety. In collaboration with members, BESA also highlighted the need or a greater assignment of responsibility in its own submission to the Hackitt Review. 

“The responsibility for ensuring buildings are constructed with proper fire safety measures sits with the construction industry and yet a general lack of competence means that dangerous decisions are being made about buildings’ design or construction.”

Fire officers reported regularly noting “significant construction defects” such as flawed compartmentation between flats, which can allow fire and smoke to spread throughout buildings. They also saw “critical fire safety systems”, such as mechanical smoke ventilation, that were either not installed as per the original design, poorly designed, or simply not working.

This serious attack on the industry’s competency levels came just hours before an announcement from the new slimmed down CITB that it was ceasing to provide training, which raised questions about the level of resource now available to employers in construction-related fields.

Lifesaving

Tony Howard, training director at BESA said that many employers were still being pushed towards “generic training around general plumbing skills” instead of the specific skills needed to install lifesaving systems like fire-rated ductwork; smoke ventilation; and the pipework for fire sprinkler systems – as well as other specialised building engineering tasks.

Despite the clear need for these vital skills, training funding on offer from the government is still pushing employers towards the wrong courses, according to Mr Howard.

“How would a plumber know if the ductwork they just commissioned had been manufactured from the right material and installed properly if they were never trained to do so?” he said. “If the CITB is no longer providing training, then the government needs to urgently get behind the people who will – and particularly those who will deliver appropriate skills for today’s construction needs.”

BESA is urging the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) to “stop supporting the wrong courses” and called on the chancellor to make funding for training and access to apprenticeships for SMEs a key element in the Budget. He should be working closely with the Department for Education to ensure funding is getting to the right areas and supporting the government’s stated aims of backing apprenticeships, the Association says.

“Unfortunately, all the positive pronouncements on vocational training have not been backed up by funding and people are rapidly losing faith in the system,” said Mr Howard. 

“As the fire officers have spotted, our skills gap has reached a critical point despite the fact that there are thousands of people keen to take up targeted apprenticeships and thousands of SMEs that want to take on an apprentice,” he said. “The ESFA asked training providers to submit bids demonstrating levels of demand back in the summer, but we still haven’t seen the money reach those new providers and we still haven’t seen them stop sending money to the people pumping out the wrong skills.”

He said employers could help themselves by not allowing training providers to convince them that they need one skill “when they know they need another”. However, even where BESA members and other industry employers managed to provide the right type of skills, these were not always checked on site or insisted upon by clients, he added.

“The construction CSCS cards and our own sector’s SKILLcards are readily available and easy to check online for up-to-date details of the holder’s competencies,” said Mr Howard.

 

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