When it comes to fire, are we looking at the bigger picture?

When you look at the built environment over the past 20 years, we have created many buildings that are not resilient to fire and we continue to build them. While the best approach to fire safety is not to have a fire in the first instance, it’s important that we ask the question: what sort of built environment do we want in the future?

Change does take time. Looking back at safety in cars, the seat belt was invented as far back as 1885 but in the UK it was only required to be worn by law nearly a century later. Interestingly, airbags were developed in the early 1950s and while they are a feature of all modern cars, this safety solution is still not a legal requirement – but a car could not receive a safety rating without one. Compare this to the built environment today and a business considering fire safety; the minimum building standards are designed to preserve human life, not to ensure the resilience of the building.

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 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 so doing we make compromises with buildings therefore features 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.

In the future, do we want buildings that the fire service has no possible hope of tackling a fire in? Drone footage of the Daventry warehouse fire shows that the fire and rescue service was clearly unable to put water on the vast and expansive building. Even at a maximum elevation on the hydraulic platforms used to fight the fire, the jets could only reach about one tenth of the way into the building.

So, what is the solution to prevent damage to our precious infrastructure? The evidence shows that sprinkler systems have an operational reliability of 94% and demonstrate when called to work that 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 types1.

The data clearly proves that sprinklers are 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. 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 businesses that experience a fire and have sprinklers fitted are able to be back up and operational within days, if not hours.

Fire does not discriminate; whether it is a railway station, a car park, a warehouse or an office, fires happen on a regular basis and will continue to do so in the future. 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.

1Efficiency and Effectiveness of Sprinkler Systems in the United Kingdom: An Analysis from Fire Service Data – Optimal Electronics May 2017