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How we established a global fire safety standard

The UN has ratified the International Fire Safety Standard Common Principles, which RICS was instrumental in creating. While it will take time for governments to implement, its impact should be felt immediately

Author: Gary Strong FRICS

26 November 2020

It is now just over a week since the United Nations (UN) ratified the very first International Fire Safety Standard (IFSS) Common Principles. Now, for the first time in history, the world has a standard that all those involved in constructing, managing and maintaining buildings can use to keep people safe. That is a tangible achievement and one in which RICS can take pride.

It is, of course, shocking that it has taken until 2020 for such a standard to have emerged, and it is deeply sad that it took a tragedy for it to happen. But the truth is that it took the Grenfell Tower fire for governments around the world to wake up and take fire safety seriously. Other recent fires in other places could – should – have galvanised action, but didn’t. The events of 14 June 2017 changed everything. 

In the aftermath of the tragedy, my team at RICS started looking at what fire safety standards existed around the world to inform our response in the UK. It rapidly became clear that there were multiple different codes and standards and little consistency. Terrifyingly, some countries didn’t have any standards at all. 

As a result, I started exploring the idea of establishing a coalition of professional bodies that would draw up a standard that could be adopted internationally. I started in the UK, talking to bodies such as the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) before then reaching out to organisations across the globe. Ultimately, 80 different organisations signed up to be a part of the International Fire Safety Standards (IFSS) Coalition.

However, in order for the standard to have a real influence on national governments, we knew that it needed to be endorsed by a supranational body – and the UN was the perfect choice. The UN is a vast organisation and I was initially concerned that we would find it difficult to get a hearing. However, RICS has some good contacts at the UN in Geneva and what I actually found was that we were pushing at an open door, as fire safety is a global issue and fits with the UN SDGs. In July 2018, they even hosted the official launch of the IFSS Coalition. 

Gary Strong. RICS. London. United Kingdom.
"It became clear that there were multiple codes and standards. Terrifyingly, some countries didn't have any standards at all" Gary Strong FRICS

At that point, the hard work began. We set up a standard setting committee made up of 24 international fire safety experts drawn from across the built environment, all acting on a pro bono basis, and chaired by then RICS president Tim Neal FRICS. He isn’t a fire safety specialist but that worked to our advantage – he had no entrenched views on which existing code sets the highest standard, so was well placed to mediate the discussions. 

As a result, we quickly established some guiding principles that nobody could disagree with and then got into the nitty gritty. An early draft of the standard was distributed to what we called friends and family at the end of 2019 ahead of a global consultation. That closed in May 2020 and we then spent the next five months taking in comments and finalising the text for publishing. The IFSS Common Principles was ultimately published on 5 October.

While the committee was working on the document, I knew that it was important to ensure that it stayed on the UN’s radar. I wanted to ensure that the hunger for the standard that had been so palpable in July 2018 didn’t wane, so I spent time building interest by presenting at general UN assemblies and talking to individual country ambassadors and mission representatives in Geneva. The result was that when I presented it on the 7 October, everybody knew it was coming and there was a strong desire to see it ratified as soon as possible. Ultimately, that happened on 13 November.

Getting the UN’s endorsement makes for a great headline and should have attracted attention in governments around the world. That is to be welcomed and hopefully legislation will follow, however slowly the wheels of government can turn. But the impact of the standard should be felt immediately. Every one of those 80 professional bodies have agreed to use the standard, meaning that hundreds of thousands of professionals will apply its rigour. As a result, the world is that bit safer than it was previously. 

Gary Strong FRICS is RICS' Global Building Standards Director and chair of the International Fire Safety Standards (IFSS) Coalition

Find more information and download the insight paper Developing a Global Standard for Fire Reporting.

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