Kemerovo disaster could happen in Estonia

PHOTO: Marina Lisova / REUTERS / Scanpix

Examples of documents that list experts who have never assessed the safety of a building and are not aware their names have been used can also be found in Estonia.

An employee of Estonia’s leading security firm G4S discovered in the spring of 2016 that another company – Sepmar OÜ, owned by well-known East Viru County businessman Alar Seppern – that competed for the same tender is presenting their colleague in G4S as its expert.

Things seemed suspicious as G4S had listed the same person as its expert for the tender – the company’s head of safety technology for the northern region Tarmo Nigols.

Nigols’ professional certificate has three ratings tied to installation and service of fire safety equipment. Neither G4S nor Sepmar would have had a chance without an expert with a valid certificate.

Sepmar had entered Nigols’ name in the tender documentations without his consent or a contract. Unbeknownst to himself, Nigols participated in the same tender for two firms, basically competing with himself.

When Nigols heard his name had been used without his permission, he reached for his phone. The expert did not manage to contact anyone at the construction company. He sent several letters but never received a reply.

Nigols also notified the Economic Activity Register (MTR) of his name having been misused. The register is where Sepmar got his name in the first place as it lists all certified experts. CEO Alar Sepner finally took down Nigols’ name, that had been on the bid since February, in early June – the MTR log reveals who has made changes. It was the second time G4S had discovered its employee’s name on a competing bid.

Manager of the Estonian Security Companies Association, that issues certificates to fire safety system experts, Andre Lilleleht said the practice is widespread. Identity theft usually comes to light when people discover they are competing with themselves in procurement process: for example, a person from the southern branch discovers that a colleague from the north is participating in a regional tender, and the company starts investigating how something like this could have happened.

“If the contracting party requires the tenderer to have people with fire safety certification in the documentation, and if it then fails to verify who was listed – and they usually do – craftier firms have realized that they can pretty much write any name. All one needs to do is go to the register of professions and see who has the necessary certificate. Then you pick out a name and hope the contracting entity does not follow up,” Lilleleht said.

While safety equipment cannot prevent fires, it provides early warning, so people can be evacuated using unrestricted and obvious routes and rescue workers have an easier time fighting the blaze.

Agency building concerned

Owner of Sepmar OÜ, who used Nigols’ name without asking him, Alar Seppern, initially said the journalist’s call was the first time he heard about it. He later recalled someone had turned to the company with a concern of that nature.

Seppern said that he did not bid on tenders with his now defunct company that has a warning of imminent deletion from the commercial register. “Even if his name did find its way there by accident, it was removed. The fact the log reflects my names does not mean I did it personally. I have two ID-cards, the other one was used by my employees,” the businessman explained.

“I recall we had our own fire safety specialist, or, when necessary, we have used subcontractors. G4S has been a subcontractor for us on numerous occasions.”

Seppern said that as far as he knows, it is impossible to use someone’s name in the register without their digital signature. Seppern has previously appeared in the public eye by notifying the police of corruption only to be convicted of giving bribes in first instance court himself in January. He said that the dispute is in progress which is why the company cannot be active right now.

Nigols said that major companies also use outside specialists who have the necessary certificates, but that they usually ask the person first and draw up a contract for the work.

G4S is jealous about giving such promises as the company wants to make sure it gets the work after it allows its employee’s name to be put on documents.

One of the few contracting agencies that checks documentation is State Real Estate Ltd. (RKAS) that, according to Nigols, has much more experience than most

“They recently held a tender for a rescue deport in South Estonia. They called me and asked whether my name should be in the documentation. Once more, it turned out it should not. I had not given my permission.”

Lilleleht said that security firms have proposed introducing the kind of process Seppern believed to already be in effect: that people’s names could not be used in MTR without their consent. That would help avoid situations where people discover they oversee fire safety equipment in buildings they’ve never even seen.

Adviser with the interior ministry’s rescue and crisis regulation policy department Mari Tikan said that the ministry has been contacted about this issue, and that changes are being prepared. While adding the functionality of asking for people’s consent before their names can be used in MTR would not be difficult, amendments to the Fire Safety Act would also be needed, Tikan said.

She added that the ministry presumes contracting entities verify bids, and that the ministry cannot monitor the quality of the tender process.

“Organizers need to be asked about poorly organized tenders and the latter contested. If someone knows or notices that a bidder has presented false information, it needs to be reported to the rescue board or the security companies’ association.”

Because the conduct of contracting entities does not usually correspond to the state’s expectations, according to which contracting parties carefully verify information supplied by tenderers, the association must train procurers that hold fire safety tenders. “There are clients who do not even know that the ratings of certified experts can be checked in MTR.”

Director of G4S’ security technology division Priit Orasson said that there is a reason fire safety is a highly regulated field, and that the owner of the building is always responsible for it.

That is why Orasson recommends procurers check whether the person listed as being responsible knows about it and whether the person who installed fire safety equipment really has the necessary qualification. If a certified person’s name has been used without their knowledge and without getting caught, there is a chance the actual work has been done by someone off the street.

Inspections by uncertified people

“Taking delivery of objects, we’ve seen work done by people who obviously lack the necessary qualification. It’s obvious that an electrician or the main contractor has tried to do something, but not a certified specialist. Every object has a service diary where people in charge of different tasks write their names. It is very easy to pick out names and carry out random checks of whether they are certified,” he said.

Nigols said there are situations where the rescue board has told owners of buildings their fire safety maintenance has been done by a person without a valid certificate.

An example from last year had a service provider without a valid certificate check fire safety in all buildings of a rural municipality. Earlier this year, G4S took over the maintenance of a major public institution where requirements had not been complied with even though documentation listed a qualified service provider. The oversight will likely cost the owner €150,000-€200,000.

It is possible the client was deceived or had a neglectful attitude toward fire safety. “Competence costs money, and if a client is only out for the price without regard for safety, what can you do,” Orasson said.

As a fire safety expert, Nigols had many questions regarding the Kemerovo shopping mall fire in Russia in late March where 60 people lost their lives: why were the cinema’s doors closed? Why didn’t the automatic extinction system open them to allow people to escape?

“Fire safety installations are made up of integrated systems: evacuation doors must open in case of a fire, fire doors must close, some elevators must go to the evacuation floor. The fire safety system should control all of this: opening certain doors and closing others, making sure elevators only go to the evacuation floor; that escalators stop, forced air-ventilation is switched off etc. If the system has not undergone maintenance or has been designed poorly, it is very dangerous,” he said.

The Estonian Security Companies’ Association has issued two different levels of security systems technicians’ certificates that authorize holders to maintain fire safety equipment to more than 400 people, some of whom have renewed existing certificates, since 2015.

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