The use of fire risk assessment as a basis for the formulation of safety measures is, in accordance with modern practice in the more general field of health and safety. From 1993, this has been formalized within the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations, which require that all employers carry out a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risks to the health and safety of employees at work, and of the risks to others arising from the employer’s business.

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About fire risk assessment

The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order requires a risk assessment to identify the measures required to satisfy the Order. Thus, effectively, in the case of workplaces, there is a need for a fire risk assessment, as well as a health and safety assessment. In some ways, this represents a ‘coming together’ of fire safety and general health and safety, although the fire risk assessment would not normally form part of the general health and safety risk assessment; the two are normally entirely separate, except in the case of very small workplaces.


The requirement to carry out fire risk assessments has given rise to much perplexity and debate on the part of those charged with carrying out the task, even in the case of many fire safety practitioners.


Yet, in fact, for those who understand the basic principles of fire safety, fire risk assessment should create no fears. For most premises, there is little mystique or complexity involved in undertaking and documenting a fire risk assessment. The process simply involves a formal, but logical and analytical, review of the fire hazards and fire risks, along with an examination of the fire precautions

Terminology of fire risk assessment


Perhaps some of the confusion that can arise results from loose, inexact, and sometimes conflicting use of terminology.  It is necessary to consider carefully the exact meaning of the terms hazard and risk, both of which are used with a greater degree of exactitude in the field of health and safety. In the field of fire safety, they have, in the past, often been considered as either completely synonymous or sufficiently so to enable them to be used interchangeably or at best, with an ill-defined appreciation of the correct applications.


Given the assertions described above, and the closer relationship that might now be considered to exist between health and safety on the one hand, and fire safety on the other, it is appropriate to base the parlance of fire risk assessment on that adopted by health and safety practitioners. Guidance on the management of health and safety can be found in BS 8800, which also contains a useful annex on the subject of risk assessment.

Fire hazard:  potential for injury and/or damage from fire; • fire risk: product of the probability of occurrence of a fire to be expected in a given technical operation or state, and the consequence or extent of damage to be expected on the occurrence of a fire;


Fire risk: combination of the likelihood and consequence(s) of a specified hazardous event;


Fire risk assessment: process of identifying hazards and evaluating the risks to health and safety arising from these hazards taking account of the existing risk controls (or, in the case of a new activity, the proposed risk controls). This clear distinction between hazard and risk is, of great value in any analytical approach to any aspect of safety, including fire safety.


Fire hazard identification: process of recognizing that a fire hazard exists and defining its characteristics;


It would then seem reasonable, by analogy, to regard a fire hazard as, quite simply, a source or situation with the potential to result in a fire; an example would be defective electrical wiring, which could certainly be reasonably described, even in common parlance, as a fire hazard. If this definition were adopted, all potential ignition sources, such as smoking, arson, etc. would require to be considered as at least potential fire hazards.


On the other hand, not all fire hazards would be potential sources of ignition. A ‘situation’ could represent a failure to separate adequately combustible materials, which, in themselves, could not be regarded as a hazard’, from potential sources of ignition, which, in themselves, could also not be regarded as a ‘hazard’.


For example, a pile of waste cardboard would not, in every circumstance, be regarded as a fire hazard, nor would smoking cigarettes on the public highway. However, if the pile of waste cardboard was situated on the public highway, close to the windows of a building, a fire hazard is undoubtedly created; ignition by a carelessly discarded cigarette or match could start a fire that spreads into the building via the adjacent windows. Similarly, a rubbish bin located externally, but close to windows on the building’s perimeter, might be regarded as a hazard, owing to the virtually all-pervasive potential for malicious ignition.

Fire risk assessment: the concept

A major component in fire risk assessment is, therefore, fire hazard identification, which, in simple terms, is the process of identifying circumstances that may result in a fire. The ‘circumstances’ may be ‘soft’ (i.e. related to Fire risk assessment management issues, such as poor maintenance) or ‘hard’, such as a portable heater in close proximity to combustible materials.


The response to fire hazards identified in the fire hazard identification is, of course, simply fire prevention, in the exact and literal sense of the term, as opposed to the older-fashioned and broader concept of fire prevention as practiced by what used to be known as a ‘fire prevention officer’. In practice, in carrying out a fire risk assessment, fire hazard identification and investigation of fire prevention measures are likely to be carried out simultaneously as a single exercise.


The consequences of fire will be governed by many factors, both ‘soft’ and hard’. The most significant factor that governs the outcome of a fire is the nature and content of fire protection measures, such as the means of escape, fire warning systems, automatic fire extinguishing systems, etc.


However, the characteristics of the occupants, such as their physical condition and their likely reaction to a fire alarm signal, are also extremely important. Impaired mobility is a major factor to consider, given the modern requirements for access to buildings for disabled people. The potential for temporary impairment by alcohol or drugs may also be important.


While the characteristics of occupants may be regarded as a given quantity for any building, the response of people to fire is a variable that can, and should, be improved by instruction, fire marshal training and rehearsal in the form of fire drills. This cannot be overemphasized, as it is now widely recognized that human behaviour in fire is an important and legitimate aspect of the broad subject of fire safety engineering.


Accepting, then, the definition of fire risk, what is involved in a fire risk assessment? The term ‘assessment’ has connotations of quantification, but true quantification of risk, in terms of quantified probabilities and complex event trees, is only relevant in the case of high-hazard industrial processes and similar situations. 

The combination of the values allocated, by means of a formula, carries with it certain dangers. There is usually some form of weighting for different risk factors, which is, in effect, predetermined by subjective judgment on the part of the author of the scheme. This can sometimes lead to anomalous results, particularly if, for example, one risk (or protection) factor departs substantially from the norm; according to the weighting allocated to the factor, its unacceptable status may not be obvious from the overall value for fire risk. There is also a danger that an action plan concentrates on increasing the number of ‘safety points’ without proper consideration of the measures proposed. In simple ‘points schemes’ of this nature, it is also difficult to take into account the complex interactions between fire protection measures.

Fire risk assessment: the process

The fire risk assessment and control is achieved by:


identifying hazards and making an estimate of the associated risk levels, on the basis of the existing or proposed risk controls;


determining whether these risks are tolerable; whether the determining whether further analysis risks are, or are not, tolerable;


required devising risk controls where these are found to be necessary 


Tolerable risk is defined in risk at a level that can be accepted provided risk controls are implemented to reduce risk as low as is reasonably practicable, i.e. reduced to the point where it can be shown that the costs (in terms of time, money and/or effort) of further risk reduction would be disproportionate to the further benefits.


It should also be noted that, in this respect, there is consistency between health and safety principles and the requirements of fire safety legislation, which requires that the safety of employees be ensured as far as is reasonably practicable. 


The full procedure described in BS 8800 is not regarded as necessary or cost-effective when it is quite clear that risks are trivial, or if the previous assessment has shown that existing or planned controls conform to established legal requirements or standards and are appropriate.


Fire risk is rarely trivial, but in some circumstances, such as a small, single-story, detached plant room, a lengthy fire risk assessment is usually inappropriate. It is also reasonable to consider that, after a full fire risk assessment has been carried out and fire risk is adequately controlled, reviews of the assessment need only be limited in depth.

Most premises arguably warrant a separate and more detailed fire risk assessment, which would begin with fire hazard identification, based on common sources of ignition, such as electrical installations and equipment, smoking, malicious ignition, cooking processes, heating equipment, etc. To these broad categories should be added any particular fire hazards associated with the company’s activities, such as handling of flammable liquids, and any situations that could foreseeably result in a fire.


The hazard-identification process should give individual hazard on the prompt list, along with the controls in place, so that some subjective view as to the likelihood of fire arising from the hazards can be reached. Often this process can involve two phases, which we as ‘policy’ and ‘practice’. 


The fire hazard associated with electrical equipment. The policy stage would include consideration of the company’s arrangements for portable appliance testing, and for control over use, in the building, of employees’ own personal electrical appliances. The practice stage comes when the premises are inspected and observations can be made as to whether there is evidence that there is adherence to the policy or whether, for example, portable appliance testing is overdue, any appliances are overlooked and whether employees contravene the policy on use of their own electrical appliances.


It would be possible to ascribe a likelihood or subjective probability, to each hazard that is identified. Thus, for example, the likelihood of a fire caused by persons smoking may be judged to below, while the probability of, say, a fire of electrical origin could (if, perhaps, there were old wiring) be high. It would, therefore, be possible to associate a ‘fire risk’ with each of the hazards or situations that are identified in the fire hazard assessment.


It could be argued that the consequences of a fire, once it occurs, are not dependent on the cause. This is, in fact, not entirely correct. If the hazards the storage of easily ignited combustible materials within a means of escape stairway in which people are permitted to smoke, the risk (to occupants) is quite different from the risk associated with, say, defective wiring within a fire-resisting riser enclosure on the top floor


Certainly in the first stage of the risk assessment, to apportion a specific risk to each fire hazard tends to make the risk assessment unnecessarily complex, or at least unduly lengthy. Usually, it is sufficient, at the end of the hazard-identification stage, to define the overall level of fire hazard within the premises or part of the premises under consideration. This overall fire hazard may be the summation of the likelihoods’ of fire resulting from each and every one of the fire hazards that has been identified; it is, therefore, simply a subjective statement of the probability of fire.


Obviously, the probability of fire can vary greatly from one premise to another. Where only one premise is involved, or where a number of premises are to be assessed by one or even two competent fire safety specialists, several categories of fire hazard level may be appropriate.



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Fire Risk Levels

However, if a significant number of premises are to be assessed by several specialists, or if the premises are to be assessed by a non-specialist, inconsistent or anomalous results are likely to occur from methods that involve too many categories. Under these circumstances, a simple system of categories, such as low, medium and high, can be sufficient. (This is consistent with the simple approach to risk assessment often adopted in a general health and safety risk assessment.)


The use of only three levels can provide a good degree of consistency amongst different assessors and is likely to provide sensible results by the non-specialist. There is already a natural tendency for people to classify many variables in their everyday life on the basis of three categories, such as: cold, normal and hot; small, medium and large, etc. A large number of observers would probably reach a consistent conclusion, after a car journey, as to whether the driver had driven slowly, at ‘normal’ speed or had driven fast. Consistency would, however, break down if they were asked whether the speed of the car had been very slow, slow, normal, fast or very fast, unless some very clear guidelines for the boundaries of the categories had been set in advance.


The probability of fire will depend on the nature of the premises, in the sense of the processes and activities carried out, the state of its electrical installation, etc. Account should be taken of the physical and procedural measures in place to prevent fire. It should be borne in mind that malicious ignition is a major cause of fire, particularly in premises to which the public are admitted in large numbers, such as places of entertainment; this may even preclude the probability of fire in such premises from being regarded as the lowest category.


The fire risk assessment process should then proceed to consider the consequences of fire. As already discussed, the consequences are independent of the probability of fire, albeit not entirely independent of the nature of the fire hazards that exist. In considering the consequences, due consideration should be given to both the potential extent of harm that may occur to occupants, as well as the likelihood that harm will occur.


The potential severity of harm that will occur in the event of fire, and the likelihood of harm, are governed by many common factors in most premises such as:


  • number of people at risk;
  • the physical and psychological characteristics of the familiarity of occupants with the premises and the fire procedures;
  •  height of the building above ground; occupants;
  • means of escape; measures that assist in escape;
  • fire warning arrangements;
  • means for containing and extinguishing fire;
  • the standard of the emergency plan for action in the event of fire;
  • the quality of staff training.


Thus, it is usually possible to classify the consequences into three categories, each of which may be thought of as a form of “average’ or most reasonably foreseeable consequences of a fire in the building. (For the mathematically inclined, they may be thought of as the subjective integration of a number of harm scenarios multiplied by the probability of each, with the product divided by the number of scenarios.)


When considering the potential consequences of a fire, account must be taken of the resources in place to respond to and control a fire once it occurs. Legal requirements and codes of practice should be considered in the assessment of the adequacy of these measures.


The risk is obviously greater when there are more people exposed to the fire. However, equally, serious risk can occur if, even only on a limited number of occasions, a small number of persons (even one) is unduly exposed to severe harm in the event of fire. An example could be one person working in a remote part of a building, with unsatisfactory means of escape and inadequate warning of a fire, or the occasional presence of disabled people without adequate arrangements for their evacuation in the event of a fire. 


Having determined the likely consequences of fire, it is now necessary to combine the likelihood of fire with the consequences. If three categories are available for each, the fire risk may be determined from a 3 x 3 matrix, with, potentially, nine different risk categories. However, in practice, combinations may be equivalent, and a system in which there are, perhaps, five risk categories is probably adequate.

Fire Risk Categories

The table below shows the ‘risk-level éstimator’ contained. This matrix allocates five risk categories on the basis of three levels of likelihood of fire and three consequence levels. It, therefore, provides some scope for consistent assessment (a result of the assessor having to combine only one of three likelihoods and three consequence levels), while providing a useful breadth of risk categories. Action and timescale can then be related to risk.


A simple risk-level estimator

Potential Consequences of fire

Slight harm

Moderate harm

Extreme harm

Likelihood of fire



Trivial risk

Tolerable risk

Moderate risk


Tolerable risk

Moderate risk

Substantial risk


Moderate risk

Substantial risk

Intolerable risk

This process is often, in guidance documents, set out as a number of defined ‘steps’, in order to promote a structured approach. Government guidance documents on fire safety legislation advocate five steps, probably in order to maintain consistency with the five steps that the Health and Safety Executive have traditionally promoted in guidance on health and safety risk assessments.


Moreover, in such guidance, certain of the ‘steps’ are actually several steps in practice, which presumably have been combined merely to limit the total number of steps to the traditional five. Also, in the guidance, the steps include, for example, training of staff, which is not so much a step within a fire risk assessment, but a measure that should already be in place and subject to consideration in the assessment process.


In PAS 79, nine distinct steps are defined and are each subject to detailed discussion and guidance. These nine steps are set out below.


  1. Obtain relevant information about the building, the processes carried out in the building, the occupants of the building, and any previous fires. 
  2. Identify the fire hazards and determine measures for their elimination c control. likelihood of fire.
  3. Make a (subjective) assessment of the 
  4. Determine the physical fire protection measures, relevant to the protection of people in the event of a fire. 
  5. Determine relevant information about fire safety management.
  6. Make a (subjective) assessment of the likely consequences to occupants in the event of fire. 7. Make an assessment of the fire risk and decide if the fire risk is tolerable.
  7. Formulate an action plan.
  8. Carry out a periodic review of the risk assessment.

The action plan

Having determined the level of fire risk, an action plan should be formulated to address any deficiencies and to reduce the risk to occupants from fire to as low as reasonably practicable. PAS 79 provides guidance on the suitable action and timescale for the five categories of risk 


 Action plan and timescale

Risk level

Action and timescale


No action is required and no detailed records need be kept. 


No major additional controls required. However, there might be a need for improvements that involve minor or limited cost.


It is essential that efforts are made to reduce the risk. Risk reduction measures should be implemented within a defined time period.

Where moderate risk is associated with consequences that constitute extreme harm, further assessment might be required to establish more precisely the likelihood of harm as a basis for determining the priority for improved control measures.


Considerable resources might have to be allocated to reduce the risk. If the building is unoccupied, it should not be occupied until the risk has been reduced. If the building is occupied, urgent action should be taken.

Intolerable reduce

ilding (or relevant area) should not be occupied until the risk is reduced.

In the case of fire, it is likely that, even in premises in which the risk is defined as tolerable, there may be a need for some measures to be improved, usually at limited capital cost. The names ascribed to the five categories of fire risk developed by this approach should therefore not be taken too literally. Nevertheless, the use of five different categories of fire risk, whatever they are called, is extremely useful in determining priorities and providing a comparison between different premises.


In formulating an action plan for situations in which the fire risk has been assessed as unacceptably high, an analytical approach to fire risk assessment should permit ‘backtracking’ to determine whether, in effect, the problem arises from inadequate fire prevention (i.e. inadequate control measures to prevent fire), inadequate fire protection (e.g. unsatisfactory means of escape or fire warning systems), inadequate managerial arrangements (such as fire procedures) or a combination of these.


The outcome should be an inventory of actions, in priority order, to devise, maintain or improve controls. Ideally, these should, where possible, eliminate hazards (e.g. by replacement of defective wiring).


The adequacy of the action plan must be tested, at least in the mind of the assessor, before implementation: 


  • Will the revised controls lead to tolerable fire risk levels?
  • Are new hazards created?
  • Have the most cost-effective solutions been chosen? 
  • What will occupants affected think about the need for, and practicality of, the revised fire precautions?
  • Will the revised fire precautions be adopted and maintained in practice and not ignored in the face of, for example, the normal use of, and operations in, the building?


All of these questions have relevance to any fire safety action plan, the objective of which must, of course, be to address undue fire risk, but without fire precautions by installing additional fire doors to limit fire spread if these the creation of new hazards. For example, it would be undesirable to improve were actually found to be an impediment to means of escape. The resources adopted should be the most cost-effective available; often a single objective can be satisfied by quite a variety of measures.


The practicality of fire precautions and their acceptability to occupants are also essential. There is no point in installing self-closing fire doors if discussion with occupants would have revealed that they would be such an impediment to the work process that they would always be wedged in the open position. Equally, if this is clear from discussion with those in the workplace, the problem may be pre-empted by installing fire doors that are held open by door-release mechanisms (such as magnetic door holders), which hold the door in the open position but release the door to close under the action of a self-closing device on the operation of the fire alarm system.

Documentation of a fire risk assessment


Even in the case of those with traditional skills in the field of fire safety, some practitioners have difficulty in formulating a suitable document to record the findings of a fire risk assessment. In practice, there is no right or wrong way to record a fire risk assessment.


Clearly, the written fire risk assessment should record significant findings in respect of fire hazards, people at risk from fire, the likely consequences of fire, and the controls that are in place. Since it is, after all, a risk assessment, it should not simply record facts, but should set out the assessor’s opinion of the fire risk, in the form of a category, value or grade, along with sufficient information to demonstrate the basis for the opinion. When the fire risk assessment is required under legislation, it should explicitly address the matters that the relevant legislation requires to be adequate in nature and extent. It should contain an action plan, possibly with defined priorities and/or timescales, along with confirmation that the action plan will be sufficient to maintain, or reduce, the level of fire risk, so that it is, or becomes, acceptable.


A framework for documentation of a fire risk assessment is suggested within the guidance given in PAS 79. Typically, many documented fire risk assessments will adopt a similar framework, and will comprise sections that provide information on:


  • the premises: factors such as height, construction, etc., that have a bearing on fire risk;
  • the occupants: relevant factors, such as number, nature, identification of those at special risk, etc.;
  • fire loss experience: information on previous fires at the premises is of value on the basis that what has happened before could possibly happen again
  • The fire hazards and measures for their elimination or control: ignition sources and hazardous situations that could cause a fire, along with assessment mitigate the probability of fire; 
  • fire protection measures: consideration of all measures to protect measures to fire occurs and evaluation of their adequacy; 
  • management of fire safety: review and assessment of procedures and policies
  • the fire risk assessment: subjective expression of the level of fire risk; 
  • action plan: proposed measures. occupants


The risk assessment should be regarded by management as an inventory for action and the basis for ongoing control. It should not be regarded as an end in itself, completed in the belief that it is merely a bureaucratic imposition, as this will do little or nothing to ensure that the occupants are adequately protected against fire. This makes avoidance of unnecessary detail quite important.


The fire risk assessment process should involve those responsible for management of the building, even though the assessment may be carried out by a third party, and a copy should always be studied by local management.

Periodic review of the fire risk assessment

The fire risk in any building may be subject to change, whether gradual or acute. Gradual change may occur, for example, as a result of the wear and tear on fire precautions such as fire-resisting doors, changes in management, turnover of employees and minor changes in a layout that, after a prolonged period and numerous changes, have a significant effect on means of escape. Acute changes may occur as a result of the refurbishment, changes in processes carried out, introduction of disabled people, etc.


For this reason, legislation requires that the fire risk assessment should be reviewed regularly. It is also required that the fire risk assessment is reviewed if:


  • there is reason to suspect that it is no longer valid (e.g. if a fire has occurred); or
  • there has been a significant change in the matters to which it relates.


 Once again, there is no right or wrong frequency for review of the fire risk assessment. This is a matter for local decision or group policy. In many premises, annual review might be reasonable unless the fire risk is regarded as very stable or is subject to frequent change. In practice, determining appropriate frequency for review of a fire risk assessment is part of the of carrying out the fire risk assessment. Accordingly, the date by which the fire risk assessment should be subject to review should be recorded within the documented fire risk assessment. process


Review does not, of course, mean complete reassessment. However, equally, all aspects of the original risk assessment should be revisited to ensure that they have not been subject to change. This emphasizes the importance of adequate recording of the original fire risk assessment so that the basis for its conclusions can be readily re-examined.


The Regulatory Reform Fire Safety Order of 2005 requires employers to ensure that employees are provided with adequate emergency evacuation procedures and suitable fire safety knowledge including Fire awareness and Fire Marshal training. To conclude, fire safety training within any working environment is a legal requirement under this order.

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