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Explainers

The new fire safety digital framework explained

17 November 2020

Aman Sharma, a fire safety expert and member of the Building Regulations Advisory Committee, is chairing the BSI committee developing a new standard to provide a digital 'golden thread' of fire safety information and which dovetails with the new ISO 19650 BIM standard. He talks to Denise Chevin.    

Construction may have a reputation for being slow in embracing digital technology, but its progress can seem positively fast compared to elements of the fire sector. That is all set to change, though, with new legislation that will quicken the pace of digital adoption.

Very much in the advance party is Aman Sharma, a former officer in the fire and rescue service, who set up the consultancy Totus Digital to provide advice on digital information management solutions for fire safety. Sharma is also the deputy chair of the Building Regulations Advisory Committee, where he is leading the working group overseeing the technical review of Approved Document B.

As if that didn’t keep him busy enough, he chairs a BSI committee (known as FSB 1/1/1) that is set to consult next year on a new draft standard, called BS 8644 Digital Management of Fire Safety Information for Design, Construction, Handover and Emergency Response. Code of Practice.  

The British Standard aims to produce a single document, in the form of a code of practice, that manages the flow and presentation of information relevant to fire safety so that it remains accessible, available and useable by all parties through the lifetime of the project by those responsible for each stage. This is design, construction, handover, soft-landing phase, occupation and maintenance, and emergency response. Sharma is at pains to stress that the work is not intended to re-write, disregard or conflict with any current guidance available in Approved Document B or other regulations and standards that deal with the handover of fire safety information.

It’s an aim of the project that BS 8644 will dovetail with current BS EN ISO 19650 protocols and could provide a foundation for the ‘digital golden thread of information’ that is being called for in the new Building Safety legislation.

The BSI has confirmed that the draft will be made available for public consultation in February 2021, with the aim of publishing the standard in summer 2021.

Following the horrific events at Grenfell Tower, I decided it was time to take action to set a standard for fire safety information management. – Aman Sharma

Can you tell us about your role as committee chair for BS 8644?

BS8644 is an information management standard for fire safety that focuses on the use of digital processes.

Following the horrific events at Grenfell Tower, I decided it was time to take action to set a standard for fire safety information management. The right people need the right information at the right time, and it was simply unacceptable that a lack of clarity in this area may have helped contribute to events on that tragic night.

After a thematic review of the call for evidence phases in 2018, we initially proposed a PAS (a Publicly Available Specification, which is not a standard but is written by industry experts to many of the same principles and guidelines of a full British Standard). Owing to the gravitas of the concept, it moved to a British Standard, and since June 2019 we’ve had a panel developing the draft, which is now nearing completion.

We’ve been fortunate to have at our disposal some of industry’s most experienced and forward-thinking minds on this programme, but in particular, the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government has been instrumental in both the development of the standard and ensuring the right stakeholders are engaged in the drafting process.

This has helped ensure that the programme remains true to its scope and takes into account the fantastic work being undertaken across industry in related areas.

Can you explain more about BS 8644?

BS 8644’s principal concept is to provide a digital framework, including the use of BIM frameworks, to manage fire safety information through all stages of the life cycle of a building. BS 8644 is, however, still being drafted and as such, may change as the panel considers new information and ideas.

The standard is intended to cover all parts of the built environment including existing stock, so that a user of the standard can pick up the document and apply it at any stage of the life cycle of a building.

Critically, it provides some clarity, for the first time, through the provision of a fire safety information parameter list. There’s been ambiguity in our industry in this area for years. We hope to remove some of the obscurity in selecting the appropriate fire safety terminology and definitions and which ought to be used when populating either a 3D model or 2D report.

As you engage more and more people within a development process, critical information cascades down the supply chain. Sometimes the original intent can mean something quite different to the next person and the next, so clear terminology and defined processes matter even more.

Within the Building Regulations, we already have the functional requirement prescribed within Regulation 38, which gives a duty to handover fire safety information, so that the person responsible for the building can safely and effectively manage it.

But we didn’t have a standardised process for that handover to take place, and in her review Building a Safer Future, Dame Judith Hackitt found that fire safety information handover was either not happening, or where it was happening, it was to a varying standard, so that critical fire safety information was just lost forever in a vacuum.

That’s a problem, because if you have quite a complex building, where compliance is based on a wholly engineered solution for example, it might have more advanced fire solutions within the asset. And if the building owner hasn’t been given the protocol to operate that building, so they don’t know how they should be maintaining certain aspects, then obviously the risk level is going to increase, and there’s more chance of a disaster happening.

It was clear Regulation 38 was either unenforceable or was just being overlooked at the final certificate stage.

So I hope that BS 8644 provides a set process, where you can accumulate that information and hand it over in a digital way that allows it to be relevant, accessible, and accurate, throughout the life cycle of the building. This being a British Standard, and Regulation 38 only applying to developments in England, we hope it will be used as the standard across the devolved administrations too. 

We hope to remove some of the obscurity in selecting the appropriate fire safety terminology and definitions and which ought to be used when populating either a 3D model or 2D report.– Aman Sharma

What sort of information are we talking about in the Standard?

Certainly what we refer to as the passive and active measures of a building as a minimum, but also the information that is required to safely operate a building as well as the information required by the fire and rescue service either for enforcement purposes or when making an operational response.

We’re aligning the narrative as closely as possible to the BS EN ISO 19650 series, because this is already the international standard for information management protocols.

But we are drafting the text in BS 8644 in such a way for the reader to enable a greater understanding of the BS EN ISO 19650 series. I often refer to BS 8644 as a ‘bridging’ standard for this very reason – so we can engage industry in a holistic way and gently steer fire safety in to the digital era.

Is BS 8644 advocating the use of BIM?

All standards are technology agnostic. For that reason, we provide protocols and guidance for those wishing to operate within a BIM framework and those who don’t.

We recognise that there’s parts of industry that can’t, or would be reluctant to, use BIM. We have to work hard to break down the misnomer that BIM equals cost.

While it will allow flexibility for users of the standard to do a traditional push-pull information exchange by any digital format they choose, my message is clear: we need to embrace the digital era for fire safety information management within our built environment, and I see BIM as a fundamental component to achieve this.

When people talk about digital information and the golden thread, is this emerging as a solution?

There’s currently several definitions of the Golden Thread used in a variety of contexts. This standard will not unnecessarily add to that list!

Instead our drafting panel is continuing to work closely with industry and regulators to align thinking and eventually definitions and operationalisation of the so-called Golden Thread. It’s absolutely vital we have consistency in this area. I would like to think that BS 8644 can go some way to deliver the fire safety ‘filament’ of a digital Golden Thread.

This is just my personal view of course but I expect the eventual answer will be delivered through industry.

Does that mean project professionals would need to run two systems to meet all the golden thread requirements?

No, I don’t think so. In practice, if you’re already running a system to manage a project or portfolio of information requirements a standard like BS 8644 will, I hope, just add clarity to a sub-set of that data, in this case for fire safety.

It will be an opportunity for the first time for organisations to be able to default to a standard for the exchange of fire safety information, instead of having to define it themselves and ensure that it is repeated throughout their supply chains and delivery partners.

This is about planning that set standard of information, these are the requirements, and this is the point in the project in which we will handover that information.

In my role as chair, I recognise that the standard has to be flexible, so that it’s not mandating a prescriptive method. This is why it’s a code of practice, and not a specification. We need to bring fire safety information into the fore of our built environment, ensuring our buildings are designed, built and managed in such a way that makes the transfer of safety critical data seamless. Through this, I believe we can enable a safer future for all.

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