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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 them, the impact should be felt immediately

By Gary Strong  

The United Nations member states flags in front of the United Nations Office in Geneva © Mike Gorsky/Alamy Stock Photo

This article was produced in association with International Fire Safety Standards (IFSS) Coalition

The United Nations ratified the very first International Fire Safety Standard (IFSS) Common Principles. 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 14th 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 began 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 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’s Sustainable Development Goals. In July 2018, they even hosted the official launch of the IFSS coalition.

At that point, the hard work began. We set up a standard-setting committee composed of 24 international fire safety experts drawn from across the built environment, all acting pro bono, and chaired by then RICS president Tim Neal. 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 were ultimately published on 5th October 2020.

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 UN general assemblies and talking to individual country ambassadors and mission representatives in Geneva. The result was that when I finally set out the proposal in full, everybody knew it was coming and there was a strong desire to see it ratified as soon as possible—which happened on 13th November 2020.

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 might turn. 

But the impact of the standard should be felt immediately. Every one of those 80 professional bodies has agreed to use the standard, meaning that hundreds of thousands of professionals will apply its rigour. As a result, the world has become a safer place to live.

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