Following the Grenfell Tower fire and the call for mandatory sprinkler installation, Paul Berry explores four key focus areas for system performance
SINCE THE devastating Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017, there has been an increased focus on not only fire safety generally, but particularly on the role that sprinklers play in fire suppression and the regulations surrounding their installation. In the months since the tragedy, senior personnel in London Fire Brigade (LFB) have openly called for the mandatory installation of sprinkler systems in all high rise residential buildings, emphasising their importance in fire safety efforts.
This has been echoed by Leicester City Council, which was to begin work1 in January to install sprinkler systems in its residential tower blocks, and Manchester City Council, who recently confirmed2 plans to spend over £10m fitting sprinklers in 36 high rise residential blocks across the city.
The official inquiry into the Grenfell disaster – while not expected to publish an interim report until later this year – will look into existing legislation and regulations on sprinklers, and review in great detail what went wrong in the months leading up to the fire.
The consequences of neglecting sprinklers when implementing fire safety plans has only now come to light, and this much is clear: sprinklers save lives. For both fire and security professionals and building managers, it’s high time not only for review and reappraisal, but also for action – they must safeguard employees by ensuring that sprinkler systems exist in any and all buildings, and that they are both effective and compliant.
While the regulatory discussion surrounding sprinklers is relatively new, the technology behind them has been mostly unchanged for decades now – a temperature of more than 68 degrees Celsius causes a bulb in the nozzle to fracture, discharging water through the sprinkler. The quicker this happens, the better, and this hardware has been proven to work by controlling or ideally extinguishing a fire as soon as possible.
A fully functioning and well maintained sprinkler system should prevent fires from ever getting out of control, and these basic components do succeed in preventing further damage. But what measures can fire safety and suppression teams put in place to ensure that their sprinkler systems are up to the job? There are four key focus areas: integration, intelligence, regulatory compliance, and choosing the right technology partner to help carry out an install or upgrade.
Integration is key
The first major way to improve the effectiveness of sprinkler systems is to integrate them into a wider network of fire and safety systems throughout a building. With the rise of IP enabled devices which can communicate with one another, from smoke detectors to CCTV cameras, there is a whole host of new opportunities opening up to safety teams both in terms of efficiency and available services.
Managing your whole fire and security landscape through a single centralised platform or control system means you can widen your insight into what’s going on around the site, and help decrease the administrative load on frontline staff. Integrating smart systems can provide facilities managers with deeper insights, faster situational judgement and reduced administrative workloads, which enable both an improved health and safety regime and a reduced bottom line.
In this new landscape, safety teams can increase their efficiency through a combination of innovative products and integration, connecting devices and processes which before were isolated or watched over by a single operator. For example, if fire detectors across the site are integrated with the latest CCTV technology, operators will be better equipped to improve detection and verification.
In the case of false alarms, CCTV cameras can help to aid the early detection and verification of fires by allowing users to view the area to gain a more comprehensive picture of the situation – acting as a secondary investigation strategy. Building management systems can also be monitored offsite, often in groups, to consolidate administration and reduce outlay while maintaining an overview of a site.
As well as better efficiency, another great benefit of IP connected safety devices is the data that comes with them. By connecting sprinkler systems to intelligent devices throughout the building, safety teams can gain access to monitoring data from offsite and receive regular updates on any anomalies or alerts.
This has multiple benefits: the obvious increased safety for people and assets in the building, a reduced need for on site teams to physically investigate incidents, and improved convenience for on duty safety personnel.
A connected sprinkler system, for example, could perform basic analysis on an activated unit along with other safety systems to establish whether it is or was a real fire, and if so, its severity.
This is currently a hypothetical ability in most facilities, but with the Internet of Things and its associated technologies becoming ubiquitous in a wide variety of industries, it won’t be long before increasingly sophisticated, connected and intelligent sprinkler systems are commonplace.
Current incarnations can incorporate intelligent alert systems, which are particularly useful for security managers’ night rotations.
Take a warehouse manned by operational staff – during the day, an alarm sounding or a sprinkler activating will be quickly noticed, but during unmanned hours, an alarm may not be noticed for a much longer period of time, increasing the chance of a fire getting out of control.
Connected and intelligent sprinkler systems can send signals out to responsible persons’ iPads or phones, via text message or app alerts – whichever method is most useful and has the most impact. That in turn helps to provide the earliest possible warning, meaning site teams can catch a potential fire before it develops into a large or uncontrollable blaze.
No amount of technology, however, is enough on its own. It’s essential that fire safety teams and building managers carefully consider how equipment and installations will help them achieve regulatory compliance.
Following the tragedy at Grenfell Tower, it’s evident that regulatory compliance should never be a box ticking exercise, concerned only with the letter of the law – regulations are designed to advise on and help achieve best practice. The ultimate aim, after all, is to reduce health and safety risk to the lowest level possible.
Now, sprinkler regulations are under intense scrutiny. In their current form, there is a requirement that buildings above a certain size and application must have sprinkler systems built in from the earliest stages of planning.
There have been repeated calls from LFB for this to be extended to all residential tower blocks, and as the Grenfell inquiry progresses and brings recommendations to parliament, there is a significant possibility that a far larger proportion of public buildings will be required to have sprinkler systems retrofitted in the coming years, and that new builds must incorporate them from the very beginning.
As a result, those responsible for fire safety must make sure that they are aware of all areas of responsibility covered by the relevant regulations. It’s not just a matter of installing sprinkler systems: servicing, maintenance, system design, and operation must all be properly attended to. Safety teams must ensure that all sprinkler systems are kept in full working order, checking components on a regular basis and running simulations where possible.
Regular hazard reviews and testing carried out by certificated companies is essential, and your systems must be checked by qualified engineers. There should also be an attitude of honesty when it comes to upgrades and change – if a system fails to comply with regulations, or has degraded over time, then cost worries must always come second to compliance.
That doesn’t, however, have to mean that there is a black and white choice between a satisfactory balance sheet and the safety of employees and the local community.
By working with an expert fire suppression provider, businesses can achieve regulatory compliance on a workable budget through a combination of intelligent integration, administrative reduction, and personalisation.
In the rush to avoid repeating past mistakes, there is certainly a risk that some fire safety teams may settle for less well resourced suppliers, or those without the expertise required to effectively and safely
future proof essential sprinkler systems. To avoid this, companies should be looking for professional organisations with a proven track record of successful installation – who can be product agnostic, if needs be – to install and service the correct equipment for the job.
A full service offering is a positive sign that points to a good provider – a consultative organisation that can assess needs and create solutions accordingly, specific to particular environments and systems, is key to reducing risk and achieving compliance. Companies who can provide installation, servicing and long term maintenance across an entire building, site or facility are most likely to be able to provide the right solutions.
It’s no longer good enough to hypothesise about sprinkler installation – the issue is being forced, and now is the time to act. Those responsible for building and fire safety must select an experienced technological partner and the right integrated and intelligent technology – only then can they create a reliable, safety focused fire suppression system.
Among fire professionals, there is a sense of responsibility to ensure the use of systems that reduce risk and danger and promote health and safety as much as possible. To do this, an efficient and well functioning sprinkler system is of the highest importance.
Paul Berry is director at Johnson Controls. For more information, view page 5