Sprinkler Week starts and ends with a major building fire – Why don’t we learn?

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This week is Sprinkler Week and it is ironic that the week starts with the announcement of a massive fire in Daventry that saw the total destruction of a 400,000 square foot warehouse – a warehouse that was only a matter of months old. Built at a cost of over £15million and designed with sustainability in mind (it achieved the global sustainability standard, BREEAM), it begs the question, why were sprinklers not included? To top it off, the week also ends with yet another fire at a builders merchants in Brighton.

The issue with fire is that all too often we think it won’t happen to us and when it does it is too late to do anything about it. We also don’t always appreciate the impact it can have – but inconvenience is something that we are all too quick to react to. It was only a few weeks ago that many of us were struggling with the snow. When schools close due to bad weather for a couple of days it means disruption. Imagine if your child’s school closed due to fire damage. Imagine the disruption a long term closure or relocation will have on your child’s education? But then there is a double standard when you consider local authorities across England and Wales have fined parents more than £24 million for taking their children out of school during term time but don’t appear to mind if schools are disrupted in the event of fire. It has been estimated that fires in UK schools disrupt the education of 90,000 children and students every year. Who is picking up that tab and what are we doing about it? Well not enough. In 2016, only 30% of new schools were built with sprinklers.

Sprinkler Week marks the launch of the NFCC’s (National Fire Chiefs Council) longer term plan to push for legislative change. It is also an opportunity to educate building owners and designers by dispelling the many myths surrounding sprinklers and help people understand their many benefits.

Sprinklers save lives and reduce injuries. They protect firefighters who attend incidents and reduce the amount of damage to both property and the environment from fire. In fact they are so good at protecting property that many business that experience a fire and have sprinklers fitted, are able to be back up and operational within days if not hours.

There is clear evidence that sprinklers work. In fact, the NFCC and the National Fire Sprinkler Network (NFSN) have worked together to investigate the effectiveness and reliability of sprinkler systems. Evidence shows that sprinkler systems operate on 94% of occasions demonstrating very high reliability. Furthermore, it is evident that when they do operate they extinguish or contain the fire on 99% of occasions.

Fire doesn’t discriminate; it doesn’t distinguish one building type to another. Its one constant, is that it wrecks lives. The devastating effect of fire was brought into sharp focus with last year’s Grenfell tragedy. As a result, it looks like regulatory change is on its way but the question I am currently finding myself asking, is this change going to be enough?

Since Grenfell the weaknesses in our system of fire regulation has been exposed. This has been reinforced in Dame Judith Hackitt’s Interim Report into the Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety calling it “not fit for purpose”. The concern is that we are now in the position of expecting a massive step forward in terms of regulatory guidance and if the rumours are to be heeded, we may just get cosmetic improvements. This isn’t enough.

What we need is a wide and deep review of the current Regulations and Guidance – something which many in the Fire Sector have been highlighting to Government for many years. We need this review to consider how we make our buildings resilient. Yes life safety is important, but we need to consider property protection too.

Sprinklers provide property protection and I am in no doubt that if the project design team or consultant had recommended sprinklers or the client had insisted on sprinklers, the fire earlier this week in Daventry would not have had the devastating impact it has had. Not only has this fire had a massive financial impact in terms of an insurance claim, jobs will be at risk, the local economy will be affected and there is the environmental impact that removing a fire damaged building and rebuilding it will have. Sprinklers would have helped to create a resilient building and the owners would not be facing the challenges that now lie ahead for them.

Sprinkler Week is important. It’s important that we understand the effect fires have and the benefits that sprinklers have. It is also important that we keep pushing for the regulatory change that is so needed. Sprinklers are an effective part of an overall fire safety solution. They can be used efficiently to improve fire safety in a range of new and existing buildings. They save lives, they save property.