Are we asking the right questions when it comes to fire risk?

Supermarket Warehouse Fire

A recent study (1) carried out by the Business Sprinkler Alliance confirmed that the uptake of fire safety sprinkler systems is low, with 68% of those interviewed having been involved in a decision not to include an automatic fire sprinkler system on at least one occasion during 2019. With fire being the leading cause of commercial property loss according to the Association of British Insurers, fire prevention in commercial buildings is crucial. But are people considering the big picture when they deal with hazards?

The construction industry has been so keen on sustainability it has forgotten about safety and resilience. Green rating systems and regulations may well recognise a high-performance building, but if it’s not built to withstand fire this will nullify the benefits gained from green construction. A fire that destroyed a newly-opened unsprinklered warehouse in Daventry – and one that had a high BREEAM rating for its renewable carbon technologies – had far reaching consequences, with rebuild costs of £30 million and the eventual sale of the Gardman garden supplies business. This raises a fundamental issue about how sustainable such a project can be when one considers fire as a serious hazard to the growth of a business and the destruction of buildings and their contents. Sustainability, therefore, isn’t just about insulation and energy consumption.

It’s often the case that we spare no expense in value engineering projects to get them down to the lowest price, but in doing so we make compromises with buildings, so things such as sprinklers are taken out. In the total build cost, sprinklers are a marginal expense if not an expense at all. When people realise their mistake, it is too late. Sadly, this was the case at the Gardman distribution centre which was completely destroyed by fire, impacting not only the business and its employees, but also retailers, the local economy and the environment.

Asian snack manufacturer UK Snacks suffered a similar fate, collapsing into administration nine months after a major fire destroyed areas of its warehouse. Whilst there might have been other reasons for the company’s unfortunate fate, the fire would have caused disruption to the business and showcases how companies are not always resilient after fire. Although insurance can support replacing equipment, the move to an alternate location to maintain business operations and support continuity efforts takes an inordinate amount of time and effort. Unless trading can continue quickly, businesses feel the financial pressure of maintaining cash flow and often flounder.

Building fires such as these occur at a higher frequency than people expect and have an impact that goes way beyond that of the owners and its immediate occupiers. The fire safety guidance of the Building Regulations (provided by Approved Document B – ADB) is based on a consideration of life safety impacts. However, as recent fires in the city centres of London, Belfast and Glasgow have shown the impact of a fire is wider with economic, social and environmental implications. So why is property protection and business resilience not given greater consideration, and why are businesses willing to take the risk?

Fire’s impact
Fire remains the leading cause of commercial property loss, with the Association of British Insurers (ABI) predicting that UK businesses could stand to lose £10bn between 2010 and 2020 as a result of fire. However, businesses should take note of findings from the Chartered Institute of Loss Adjusters (CILA) which found that 43% of business interruption polices were underinsured by an average of 53%. At the same time the Businesses are not valuing what they own in terms of property and think they are going to recover a lot quicker than they do. They are failing to see the real impact of fire and leaving themselves exposed.

Home Office figures (2) show that the Fire and Rescue service in England has attended 26,800 fires in industrial and commercial buildings in the past three years. From offices to industrial buildings, healthcare facilities to hotels; the impact of a major fire can be devastating and many businesses never recover. But the cost of fires in industrial and commercial buildings goes far beyond the expense and impacts on individual businesses and insured costs. Fires are the cause of significant economic, environmental and community costs, many of which are ultimately borne by the taxpayer.

To reduce the risk to life and the degree of damage in a fire event, the inclusion of automatic sprinkler systems is proven time and time again to be both effective and efficient in a wide range of fire scenarios and building types, affording greater levels of fire protection to people, property and the environment.

Sprinklers? They work
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. In an independent report carried out by Optimal Economics, thousands of incidents have been analysed to provide detailed and comprehensive analysis of the activation and performance of sprinkler systems used to control fire in buildings. The evidence indicates that sprinkler systems have an operational reliability of 94% and demonstrate, when called to work, they have a very high reliability.

Furthermore, it is evident that when they do operate they extinguish or contain the fire on 99% of occasions across a wide range of building types(3). This is why they are chosen to protect people, buildings and businesses; ensuring continuity and productivity.

Automatic sprinkler systems offer the business owner reliable, long-lived and proven technology which can reduce the risk to life and degree of damage caused in a fire event. These systems make buildings and businesses resilient to fire incidents because they control or extinguish a fire before the fire and rescue service arrive. The impacted business can be back up-and-running very quickly, avoiding the economic and social costs.

The contrast between two buildings with and without a sprinkler system in a fire can be quite stark. In the event of a fire, many businesses with sprinkler systems suffer a minor interruption and find they are back up-and-running in a matter of hours. Those without such protection can see 5 to 6 times the damage and suffer longer spells of interruption. These systems make buildings and businesses resilient to fire because they control or extinguish a blaze before the fire and rescue service arrive. The impact on the business is minimal, and the economic and social costs are avoided altogether.

1 UK: Commercial and Industrial Attitudes Study 2018 – Business Sprinkler Alliance

2 Home Office Fire Statistics – Other Buildings Fire Dataset

3Efficiency and Effectiveness of Sprinkler Systems in the United Kingdom: An Analysis from Fire Service Data – Optimal Electronics May 2017