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Most executives would be surprised to realize how decisions made every day throughout their organization impact their risk management.

Nearly every choice has the potential for achieving the desired results, as well as the potential for undesired results. Each choice is based on an understanding of the situation, as well as an anticipated outcome, with consideration of potential side effects. Whether recognized or not, everyone in the organization is practicing risk management.

Take, for example, the administrative assistant who decides whether to overnight or two-day ship an application for permit on a tight construction schedule, or the job superintendent finalizing the concrete mix needed for a cold weather pour when the temperature conditions are borderline. These decisions are made routinely based on a review of the risk potential and the outcome can affect the company or client.

But what about the larger risks related to fire and life safety? Are those risks fully known or understood? Who is responsible for making the decisions that could have a direct impact on the outcome in an emergency situation? Making decisions without an understanding of the full risk to fire and life safety can lead to disastrous results. For these situations, the prudent course of action to minimize risk exposure is to conduct a fire risk assessment.

A fire risk assessment is essentially a tool that leads to the answer to a question. The risk assessment process helps focus attention on what is important to fire safety and can help identify potential risks for the owner, company or client. The risk assessment also assists in prioritizing fire safety expenditures and actions when they’re required.

For a fire risk assessment to be effective, the first step is to identify and document the question that needs an answer, or the purpose of the analysis. It is important to remember risk assessments may be conducted to answer many different questions, such as risk to life (occupants or firefighters), risk to operations (business interruption), risk to the environment or even risk of loss of cultural resources. For each of the questions asked, the fire risk assessment will be structured differently so the correct parameters are analyzed. Unfortunately, when risk assessments fail to deliver the desired outcome, it is usually related to the failure to properly define the question to which an answer is needed, not necessarily the fire risk analysis itself. A fire risk assessment is not a “one size fits all” approach.

After the purpose of the fire risk assessment is established, a plan for conducting the actual assessment phase should be completed. This plan will specify the objective, establish the scope and determine the criteria against which items will be measured. Depending on the goal of the overall fire risk assessment, the plan may be relatively simple and only include a few items (i.e., validate fire extinguisher placement in all construction equipment), or may be more complicated and involve many steps, phases and evaluations (i.e., evaluate impact to fire and life safety in phased expansion of an existing occupied multi-story residential building). Whatever the purpose of the fire risk assessment, a plan for completing the actual analysis is essential for success.

Within the detailed plan for the fire risk assessment, the objective will define what is to be evaluated. Examples might include evaluating for compliance with approved plans; compliance with building regulations; compliance with performance-based features for life safety and occupant protection; or many other areas of consideration. The objective clearly defines “what” is being evaluated in the assessment.

The scope definition within the assessment plan defines the extent and boundaries of the assessment. Essentially, “where” are we evaluating the “what?” Examples to consider when establishing these boundaries are:

  • Where will the assessment be completed?
  • What will it involve?
  • Who will be involved?
  • What is the duration of the involvement?
Adequately establishing the scope at inception is essential to avoiding poor results at the conclusion of the assessment.

Lastly, the criteria section of the detailed plan will clearly outline what the assessment is being measured against. It might be a company policy, a regulation, code requirement or any other standard used as the benchmark in the fire risk analysis. No matter which criteria is selected, it is important that it is clearly defined and recorded, as well as in line with the specified scope and objectives.

The completion of the fire risk assessment can be conducted in various structures. The most frequent format of an assessment is to conduct an internal evaluation as the basis of conformity. A second method is to conduct an external assessment of the situation by second- or third-party groups. And lastly, the fire risk assessment may be conducted in a joint manner with both internal and external resources supporting the assessment effort. The selection of an internal, external or joint evaluation format will typically depend on the purpose and scope of the evaluation, the risk potential, the qualifications of the expected assessors and the budget of the project.

After the fire risk assessment survey component is completed, data and observations are analyzed and evaluated against the original purpose of the fire risk assessment. A summary report is typically prepared that summarizes the processes as well as the outcome. As part of the summary report, findings, conclusions and recommendations for risk mitigation/improvement should be detailed.

For the goal of the fire risk assessment to be achieved, the assessment must provide results and information upon which the organization can act. The conclusions have to be relevant to the situation and so clearly stated that the assessment allows for persons working independently of each other to reach similar conclusions. Further, the selection of the assessors for the assignment must be based on those who exhibit ethical conduct, exercise due professional care and evaluate such situations using an evidence-based approach. Following these parameters helps ensure the fire risk assessment will be not only effective, but also reliable, trusted and relevant as a part of an ongoing risk mitigation strategy.

A fire risk assessment is a valuable tool for the risk management team at any company. It is especially appropriate for fire and life safety risks where the full risk is unknown, the hazard is complicated or the risk is large. The assessment will assist in the identification of life safety issues, fire risks and hazards, and critical areas of concern, as well as formulate recommended solutions and prioritize improvements based on the noted level of risk. Most importantly, the fire risk assessment can help ensure decisions that impact fire and life safety are based on sound analysis.

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