Competency Right Down to the Individual

Monday 1st March 2021
Competency based qualifications have become a talking point of both the fire safety industry and construction sector following reports released in response to the Grenfell Tower fire. Nic Preston, Qualifications Manager of FireQual, deliberates on how the education and fire safety industries can work together, improving individual competencies and evidencing the professionalism of the sector.

In the final report of the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety, Dame Judith Hackitt observed the necessity to monitor the level of competency of individuals working within these fields. In the review it was identified there is a “lack of a coherent approach to competence levels and experience required – or professional qualifications where these may be necessary – and how these qualifications and experience should be evidenced so that they are clearly understood by all those operating within the system.” – Chapter 5 Competence (5.2)

This can be deciphered as a message to individuals (and organisations) that exclaim “I know what I’m doing” without providing any suitable evidence of competency to deliver that service. This could be overlooking any gaps of knowledge and not reacting appropriately to any changes to Standards or other crucial guidance. 

It has been a challenging few years following the Grenfell Tower fire, with this tragic event bringing shortcomings to light. Dame Judith Hackitt has discussed the fact a culture change is required which has also been championed by Jonathan O’Neill OBE, Managing Director of the Fire Protection Association (FPA). At UK Construction Week back in 2019 he emphasised “we’ve got to see regulatory change… [Dame Judith Hackitt has said last week] to the construction industry ‘you do not need to have legislation to effect cultural change’. Let’s face it, we do… we need change, and we need it now.”

FireQual understands that, as part of this culture change, there is a need for individuals to have access to robust and fit for purpose, nationally and internationally recognised qualifications providing developmental progression pathways through industry. Qualification requirements will become scrutinised far more, with the ASFP (Association for Specialist Fire Protection) being one of the first to increase membership competency requirements from the start of this year. In information distributed they stated it will be “mandatory for member companies to demonstrate that a proportion of their employees have been suitably trained and/or have achieved appropriate qualifications in Passive Fire Protection”.

At the time of announcing this news Niall Rowan CEO of ASFP commented “The ASFP has long been the standard bearer for technical excellence in passive fire protection, for instance with our requirement that installer members hold third party certification for products that they install.

“The Grenfell tragedy has further triggered significant change in the way fire safety is perceived. Improving the quality of installation and demonstrating the competency of those involved in manufacturing, testing, installing and maintaining fire protection products is now seen as vital.

“The ASFP’s new requirements will enable members to clearly demonstrate their skills, competence and professionalism. This will offer architects, specifiers, fire engineers and Tier One contractors further peace of mind that by specifying ASFP members for all passive fire protection products, services and installations quality and professionalism is assured.”

These developments will help kickstart the proverbial snowball effect that will introduce individual capability requirements (alongside organisational Third-Party Certification) across several bodies. It will greatly enhance the member quality of respected trade associations and other professional bodies going forward in response to Hackitt’s report. This action will also widen the gap greatly between those certificated people and others within industry who argue that they challenge this by claiming they follow the appropriate standards without having any proof of their knowledge, skills, or expertise.

In the October 2020 published document ‘Setting the Bar - A new competence regime for building a safer future’ a major recommendation was to “apply stringent assessment of individuals”. It stressed “for individuals whose work materially affects safety, or who work unsupervised, compliance needs to be demonstrated by independent, third party assessment. All others working on higher-risk buildings should be supervised by individuals who have been third party assessed as competent to carry out the work and to act as supervisors.”

Defining individual competence

As this article is written, BSI have released the revision (v2.0) of their Flex 8670 draft document for public comment (Built environment – Overarching framework for building safety competence of individuals – Specification). This outright questions what defines competency for individuals. The document states “competence is primarily concerned with human behaviour and is multi-dimensional, multifaceted, inherently non-discrete and context dependent. Competence is therefore defined in many different ways across different industries. This is necessary to reflect the specific circumstances and meet the specific needs of the individuals and organizations that employ individuals operating in those industries.” – BSI Flex 8670 v2.0 (0.3.2)

It adds “for an individual to be considered competent, sector-specific competence frameworks should require that individuals have the appropriate skills, knowledge and experience, combined with appropriate behaviours, to be able to fulfil their defined role, function or activity and carry out appropriate tasks. This is sometimes referred to in shorthand as SKEB.”

The knowledge aspect of “SKEB” is described as an “essential building block of competence leading to the development of skills.” There is a particular focus on developing this formal knowledge (or codified knowledge) to raise competency levels for individuals within the fire safety industry. This is not to undermine or lessen the importance of workplace experience, but skills can only be developed with a solid foundation of understanding on the relevant area of fire safety being performed.

Individual qualification regulation

FireQual aims to play a major part within the field of individual competency based qualifications moving forward. We look to specialise in supporting the industry ensuring we always keep our focus on what is important, the development of a consistent competency-based approach. Undertaking a regulated qualification helps to concentrate efforts on the development of the individual and that they can demonstrate minimum competencies in a subject area.

Regulated qualifications help to ensure reliability and consistency. If an individual achieves a qualification, it does not matter where they are locally, regionally, nationally, or internationally, they all must meet the same requirements. It helps to provide confidence in the knowledge and skills that person claims to have. It is not something they say they can do; they’ve had to prove it and prove it to a recognised standard. Industry and employers, both large and small, can be confident in the knowledge and skills of those individuals that work for them and the wider society can have confidence in those that provide services to them. It should also not be forgotten the sense of real achievement it can give to those that achieve qualifications, that have worked hard to develop themselves and this is a way of recognising those achievements.

These qualifications also help to provide assurance of the quality of the training provided as not only does the individual demonstrate the knowledge and skills they have developed during their training in achieving the qualification, the organisations delivering that training are also subject to rigorous quality assurance checks.

Within the safety industry, there are many training programmes and qualifications available that fall under ‘self-regulation’, meaning these may not have been suitably reviewed by an appropriate independent body. This does not mean certain training available is not delivered to a high-quality standard but FireQual, amongst other Awarding Bodies, will only provide qualifications that sit within the national qualification regulatory systems. This is an important factor to consider, as qualifications are set to fall under far greater scrutiny in the upcoming years.

Ongoing competency for life safety

FireQual follows the mantra of BAFE, where it is stressed that fire safety is life safety. For over 30 years now BAFE has been at the forefront of providing access to achieving independent and quality evidence of organisational competency. Third Party Certificated fire safety service providers are assessed usually on an annual basis to re-evaluate this level of competency. The concept of ongoing and continuous development will hold much more importance for individuals in the upcoming years and is a matter of importance in the ‘Setting the Bar’ document. It notes a recommendation that competency should be reassessed regularly. “For those involved with higher-risk buildings, there should be a robust system of reassessment so as to ensure that they have maintained their competence in relation to the work they are registered / certified to undertake and have a plan to develop new competences where necessary. The frequency of reassessment may vary between disciplines, but it should be at least every five years.”

The BSI Flex 8670 document echoes this saying “competence is perishable over time and requires positive action to maintain. This includes building on and refreshing skills, knowledge and understanding, identifying specific requirements relevant to work being undertaken and keeping abreast of changes in context such as regulation or technology. Maintaining competence, also known as CPD, includes informal and formal activities. This can include activities such as training and refresher courses, toolbox talks and mentoring or supervision and formal learning.”

FireQual will acknowledge the importance of maintaining relevant qualifications, with these having opportunities to both progress and refresh knowledge and skills where suitable. It is important to ensure qualifications keep pace with industry and changes within Standards or working practice ensuring that education works in collaboration and not at odds with industry. We believe the future of the fire safety industry looks far safer than ever before, with individual competency getting the attention it has needed and deserves for some time now.

Lewis Ramsay, Chairman of the FireQual Board and former Deputy Assistant Commissioner for the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, comments “as Chair of FireQual I have enjoyed working with a range of people to develop a means to deliver qualifications which will promote both fire and life safety. When I was a serving Fire Officer this was a specific focus and objective over my thirty year career. I am delighted to have this opportunity to continue to support these tenets through FireQual, not just in Scotland but nationally and potentially further afield.”

“We must substantiate much stronger clarity on individual competency and who should be considered capable to work in this field. My career has taught me that mistakes are made, but we need to aid in the reduction of these mistakes with reliably knowledgeable and skilled individuals.”