STUART RUCKLEDGE gives a fire service perspective on the benefits of fire suppression technology, backed up by statistics and an insight into collaborative work and community projects
Fire costs the UK significantly, not only in financial but also in social and environmental terms. The most recent government statistics state that the annual cost of fire in England is an estimated £8.3 billion, equating to 0.91% of the gross value of the whole economy. However, more important than these figures is the cost of life, with 322 people in Great Britain dying in house fires between 2013 and 2014 – a sad and tragic number.
Research shows that 80% of fire deaths occur in the home. These have several different causes such as leaving cooking unattended, placing flammable materials on the cooker or heater and, most commonly, failing to dispose of cigarettes correctly. With this in mind, the benefits of sprinkler systems speak for themselves. In buildings with sprinkler systems, 99% of the fires that started inside the property were controlled by those sprinklers, and 60% of those were controlled by the spray of only four sprinklers. These benefits are very important, given that the chances of an adult experiencing a fire in their home in their lifetime are approximately one in five.
From speaking to the public, we know there are a lot of misconceptions about sprinkler systems, including a concern that the system will discharge water when it is not needed and cause flooding or water damage to the property. In actual fact, only one sprinkler in 14,000,000 per year has malfunctioned due to manufacturing defects.
Why install them?
One fact that enormously supports having these systems installed is that there has not been one single death in the UK in a building which has a sprinkler system installed. A correctly fitted and maintained sprinkler system provides immediate and continuous protection against the spread of fire. Its fast activation means that the fire is suppressed quickly and prevented from growing and therefore spreading throughout the building. This gives residents time to escape their home altogether, move to a safer place in their home or await rescue by firefighters in a much safer environment. Sprinkler systems also reduce to a minimum the level of fire and smoke damage to a property and, when this is the case, the occupier does not need to move out of their home. Thus, they avoid all the financial costs and emotional impact that can occur after an already distressing situation.
The ability of fire suppression technology to dramatically reduce the level of damage to a property in the event of a fire was seen recently in Stoke on Trent. A residential car village caught fire in March after a resident attempted to light a cigarette on a toaster. The sprinkler activated and prevented the flat and adjoining flats from being seriously damaged and, most importantly, prevented the residents from suffering serious injury or death.
Using sprinklers significantly reduces the amount of water needed to put out a fire compared with that which the fire service would need to use if there were no sprinklers. With a sprinkler system, only the head closest to the fire discharges water, so suppression of the fire starts almost immediately. This near instantaneous intervention halts the fire’s development and, as a result, between 100 to 1,000 times less water is needed to extinguish the fire than if it were allowed to fully develop. Furthermore, the run off water from sprinkler systems is minimal, which reduces the impact from extinguishing a fire on the environment.
Installing sprinklers can bring added benefits for property developers in complying with building regulations. Requirements in Approved Document B of the regulations regarding travel distances for escape may be extended and certain requirements around access for the fire service may be relaxed. Savings in construction and building costs by the relaxation of elements of passive protection measures, and the freedom to allow open
plan design in three storey dwellings and apartments, may also be considered.
As an example, it was possible to adopt a more suitable open plan layout for vulnerable residents in a recent development, because installing sprinklers unlocked greater design freedoms allowed under the building regulations. Disabled people living in the sheltered accommodation found it much easier to move around their homes as a result. Regulations on the spacing requirement between buildings can be halved if the new buildings are fitted with sprinklers.
From a fire and rescue service perspective, the immediate response of a sprinkler system head means firefighting starts straight away, occupants have a greater chance of surviving, and the environment is much safer for firefighters when they enter the building to carry out search and rescue operations. Firefighters attending an incident where sprinklers are in use are less likely to face a fully developed fire, clearly reducing the risk to them, which in high rise buildings can be considerable.
Tragic roll call
There are numerous tragic examples of the deadly consequences of fires in homes without sprinkler protection. Nationally, these include a fire in April 2010 at Shirley Towers in Southampton, where two firefighters lost their lives fighting a flat fire in the high rise residential block. Another example is Lakanal House, a 14 storey residential block in Camberwell, London, in which six people died and more than 20 were injured in July 2009.
More locally, in Staffordshire, during the early hours of Boxing Day 2015 a man had started cooking food after returning to his home, following festive celebrations with relatives at his daughter’s home. Unfortunately, he fell asleep and left the food cooking, which sparked a kitchen fire and filled his home with smoke. Fire crews discovered the grandfather–of–two’s body after he died from carbon monoxide fumes.
A working smoke alarm could have alerted him to the danger and allowed him to escape; a domestic sprinkler system could have suppressed or even extinguished the fire. Sadly, this resident lived in close proximity to his local fire station and if a working smoke alarm or sprinkler system had been installed in his home, it is very likely that he would have survived the fire.
Towards the end of 2015, a sheltered housing scheme in Tamworth was severely damaged by a blaze that spread to two flats and the roof space. All residents of the 24 bed property for people aged over 55 had to be evacuated and were provided with alternative accommodation during the refurbishment. The building has now been completely renovated and fitted with a lifesaving sprinkler system.
Of course, the most recent incident is Grenfell Tower in London, which tragically saw many residents lose their lives in a major blaze. Although we do not know the exact circumstances of this fire, as it is still under investigation, a sprinkler system would undoubtedly have lessened the impact of the fire on the building, the residents and the local community. Our thoughts are still with those affected by this tragic incident.
In 2016, Staffordshire Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) worked with more than 35 social housing providers which housed more than 75,000 tenants in bedsits, flats, houses, care homes and high rise blocks of flats within Stoke on Trent and Staffordshire. The aim was to dispel the myths and raise awareness of the benefits of automatic fire sprinklers and identify how, with support from the service, housing providers can not only improve fire safety but also strengthen their business resilience.
As part of this, SFRS has collaborated with the British Automatic Fire Sprinkler Association (BAFSA) and held several conferences around the county for strategic and asset managers of the individual organisations. This has developed a support network where information and experience are shared.
In conjunction with this work, in 2016 Staffordshire Fire and Rescue Service embarked on a ten year Community Sprinkler Project with the desired aim of retrofitting sprinkler systems in all 47 medium and high rise buildings (with five or more storeys) in Stoke on Trent and Staffordshire. This project was to run alongside work to encourage architects and building planners to include sprinklers in any future designs and developments.
Phase one of the Community Sprinkler Project was a pair of eight storey blocks of flats at David Garrick Gardens in Lichfield, owned and managed by the Bromford Group. After consultations with all the residents, the service’s collaboration saw 63 flats, landings and escape routes protected by sprinklers, allowing the residents to feel safer in their homes.
Following the Grenfell Tower incident, the project has been brought to the forefront, and several local authorities and housing associations have committed to having sprinklers installed in their high rise buildings. These include Tamworth Borough Council and Stoke on Trent City Council, which alone cover several of the 47 high and medium rise buildings targeted as part of the project. The ten year Community Sprinkler Project is therefore expected to be completed before the given time frame.
The outlined benefits of having sprinkler systems installed far outweigh the costs and we are hopeful that the remainder of the 47 buildings in Stoke on Trent and Staffordshire will have sprinklers fitted in the not too distant future
Stuart Ruckledge is fire engineer and fire suppression lead at Staffordshire Fire and Rescue Service. For more information, view page 5