Different ways of demonstrating competency

As training options multiply, FSA chair TOM BROOKES considers competency requirements for fire alarm engineers...

In 2017/18, around one in five UK house fires that resulted in casualties were found to have involved faulty or incorrectly installed fire alarm systems.

Smoke alarms in homes and offices are often a legal requirement but, surprisingly to many, training for installing and maintaining them is not. Despite good intentions, notably attempts to raise standards, the qualifications landscape in the fire and security industry has become more muddled over the years. To understand why this is, and the steps being taken to improve fire alarm competency, we should take a closer look at BS EN 16763.

Tried and true, or brand new?

BS EN 16763 is the British and European Standard that specifies the minimum level of education required for fire safety services. In doing so, the standard aims to raise the bar for fire security professionals so it is sufficiently high to deliver quality, reliable fire alarms that, when tested, can save lives.

However, BS EN 16763 is not mandated by law. Specific training courses to meet the standard are not stipulated either. This is for a good reason: the Standard sets high expectations for the industry to meet, without dictating how they should be met, to avoid the risk of excluding a significant group occupationally experienced technicians who may not have the latest qualifications.

Advocating a narrow set of new, expensive qualifications to meet the new standards would mean that long-serving technicians and installers, with extensive portfolios and track records of high-quality work, could be excluded, at great loss to the industry.

As an industry, it is important to be absolutely clear that there are many ways of demonstrating competence.

Paving the path to competence

The FSA is a strong advocate of the ‘Trailblazer Fire, Emergency and Security Apprenticeship’, which grants operatives a level 3 occupational qualification after thorough training and assessment.

Four-fifths of the training during the 36-month apprenticeship comes through experience and mentoring acquired at work, while the other 20 per cent is knowledge-based and delivered by colleges or training providers. This is vital part of creating high quality technicians across all parts of the fire, emergency and security industry. This level of training is then independently validated through a practical end point assessment to ensure operatives meet the industry benchmark standard before going out into industry and continuing their professional career.

For long-established, experienced operatives, the Electrotechnical Certification Scheme (ECS) could also be an effective route to competence.

Whilst the ‘Trailblazer’ sets the occupational standard at Level 3 for new people coming into our industry, ECS alongside industry stakeholders also developed a qualification structure to recognise the widespread training that technicians already have as ‘prior learning’. This will ensure disproportionate barriers are not put in place, stifling experienced workers’ ability to do their job, as they have done so for many years.

The ECS card was recognised in this year’s Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety (by Dame Judith Hackitt) as an example method of identifying and recognising competence.

As the above examples show, there are many ways to show competence as a fire alarm engineer. Only by being clear and comprehensive about what is available can we make sure we improve standards without unnecessarily excluding the skilled, talented and hardworking people in this industry, which would do more harm than good in the long run.

BS5839-1 3.12 Competent Person

The Standard says that this is a “person with the relevant current training and experience, and with access to the requisite tools, equipment and information, and capable of carrying out a defined task”.

EN16763 3.4.3 Role B

Staff who exercise self-management within the guidelines of the declared services and supervise the routine work of others, taking some responsibility for the evaluation and improvement of work and can perform the technical fundamentals, the procedures and handles the risks together with the requirements of the relevant standards and regulations in the declared services. The person fulfilling Role B shall:

  1. a) perform the technical fundamentals, the procedures and handle the risks together with the requirements of the relevant standards and regulations in the declared services;
  2. b) demonstrate appropriate training on the system and the products to be used applicable to Role B;
  3. c) demonstrate practical experience and competence in the declared services;
  4. d) have factual and theoretical knowledge in broad contexts within the declared services;
  5. e) be able to demonstrate the ability to put into practice their knowledge using their abilities

The person’s ability for d) and e) can be demonstrated by Level 4 of European Qualifications Framework (EQF) – England’s equivalent to Level 3.


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