Nottingham Station fire: When will lessons be learned?

Despite Network Rail spending £60 million on the Nottingham Station refurbishment in 2014, the building had no sprinklers and the major fire that engulfed the station in January 2018 caused £5.6 million of damage and significant disruption to the rail network and local community. At the recent trial of the arsonist, the fire service said the rapid spread of this “incredibly demanding” fire was the result of a design flaw and due to a “complex construction.” It comes as a surprise then that sprinklers were viewed by Network Rail as a “red herring” and “not part of building regulations.” Why then are we still building disposable buildings?

In the first instance, something that could have limited the fire should not have been called a ‘red herring.’ If sprinklers had been fitted, this major fire would have been an hour-long incident and the toilets where the fire started would have been out of action for a week, at most. Instead, the fire caused significant damage to the grade-II listed building and several days of disruption across the city.

Sprinklers were not part of the redesign following the fire and remain a continuing concern of the Nottinghamshire Fire and Rescue Service who said: “Sprinklers limit the fire spread. They undoubtedly save lives and limit fire damage.” This fire highlights once again that to most people our building regulations should be in place to limit the damage to such property; however that is not their remit hence the comments from Network Rail. Railway stations are one of the most critical pieces of infrastructure in any city, so why are we not stopping fire in its tracks?

When it comes to health and safety, if there was a hole in a hotel’s stair carpet, then local authority inspectors would be all over it to ensure guests don’t slip or fall down the stairs. Fire is often seen as something that won’t happen, so there is no sense of urgency. It’s viewed as a low frequency, high impact problem. Yet fires do happen every day across our built environment and there is an acceptance of the damage that they cause.

However, recent events have been met with a questioning of this acceptance of damage. The fire in Nottingham station, several hotel fires, a care home fire and in early September, the complete damage of an apartment block in south London have seen a disproportionate level of damage. This has led to the inevitable question on the lack of sprinklers. Yet each example has been accompanied by a claim that the damaged property complied with the building regulations. If sprinklers are not required by building regulations then the fault may lie with building regulations.

The BSA is calling for better education on the substantial benefits that fire sprinklers can deliver to the business community and wider economy. Fire does not discriminate; whether it is a railway station, a car park, a warehouse or an office, fires happen on a regular basis. However, they can be contained and extinguished by systems such as sprinklers to ensure that life is not put at risk and businesses, jobs and the economy are protected.

I strongly believe that systems such as automatic fire sprinklers should be considered more readily as a viable option right across the built environment whether it is a hospital, school, retail or leisure facility or commercial and industrial building. Today, automatic fire sprinklers are not widely used in the UK because the guidance rarely prescribes their use. Yet automatic fire sprinklers prevent large fires because they activate automatically over a fire, controlling or even extinguishing the fire before the Fire and Rescue Service arrive. They therefore save lives and protect firefighters who attend incidents – but they also prevent significant damage or destruction of a building by fire. Preserving our buildings and infrastructure should be considered as an essential element of fire safety too.

 

Iain Cox, Chair of the Business Sprinkler Alliance