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The UKTFA has launched several initiatives to protect building sites from arson and accidental fire

Seeing through the media smoke
Published:  03 November, 2010

The UK Timber Frame Association is addressing site safety concerns in the wake of recent fires on timber frame building sites. Chairman Geoff Arnold explains

Late afternoon on Friday, September 10 an 80-bed care home under construction by developer Castleoak in Basingstoke caught fire. There were no injuries or fatalities but another multi-million pound project went up in smoke and it was another opportunity for the future of timber frame to be put in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.

The Castleoak site, one of two care home developments in the area, created headlines for a week, culminating in significant BBC coverage including live interviews with me and Chief Fire Officers’ Association (CFOA) president John Bonney.

In the week that followed the Basingstoke fire, many organisations issued media statements ranging from a call from CFOA urging a review of Building Regulations to the Fire Protection Association announcing the availability of a new guide to managing arson on construction sites. All worthy, but with what result?

A month on and the media statements have dried up but the UKTFA continues to lobby hard and work tirelessly to limit the risk of fire on construction sites. It has launched a range of initiatives and is working in partnership with several other bodies to protect construction sites from arson and accidental fire.

Back in January we launched SiteSafe. It was developed to ensure that manufacturing member companies work closely with principal contractors to give clear, concise information and assistance to ensure maximum fire safety on all construction sites. Adoption of SiteSafe is mandatory for all members.

Geoff Arnold: "This isn't the time for rhetoric; this is the time for action and change and it is down to us to take the lead"

Since its inception, 204 sites have been registered under SiteSafe and we’ve had one fire – Basingstoke. Rightly or wrongly, the media appeared to focus once more on the safety of timber frame, with little mention of arson – the probable cause of the Basingstoke fire, although the investigation is ongoing – or the vulnerability of all construction sites regardless of the build method. Critically, they missed the point that a former school which stood on the same site previously was also destroyed by arson.

Over the coming weeks the UKTFA will announce a series of initiatives that bring together all the parties that can positively improve the situation on construction site fires generally and also drive change on a level that will make a difference to the way fires that do break out or are started on timber frame construction sites are managed.

The biggest challenge is identifying the policies and procedures that just don’t work – or aren’t robust enough to deal with the realities of crime on site. The suggestion from CFOA that Building Regulations need to be changed demonstrates a lack of understanding of how these are structured to ensure absolute integrity throughout the build process, regardless of the build method. What that tells us is that CFOA needs to see change too to ensure the safety of its firefighters.

In the midst of the BBC Breakfast news coverage of the Basingstoke fire, one statement stood out as a small victory in what seemed at the time like an uphill battle for the timber frame sector. It came from the CFOA’s John Bonney and it was that “timber frame homes are safe”. As sound bites go, it doesn’t get much better. However, as Basingstoke becomes another timber frame fire captured for the world to see on YouTube, for me, as chairman of the organisation that represents over 80% of the timber frame sector, it is the event that calls for every stakeholder with a vested interest in fire on construction sites to work together.

We can’t eliminate fires – people will still break into sites and cause trouble – but we can work to protect and ensure the growth of the timber industry. Quite simply, we can’t afford another Basingstoke. This isn’t the time for rhetoric; this is the time for action and change and it is down to us to take the lead.