NFCC responds to sprinkler consultation

NFCC responds to sprinkler consultation

THE NATIONAL Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) ‘champions and demands’ the increased use of sprinklers ‘across the board’, as well as lowering the height threshold from 11m ‘as a minimum’.

In September, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) announced proposals that ‘would ensure more sprinklers in new high-rise blocks of flats’. In an announcement via Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick and building safety minister Lord Younger, MHCLG stated that the proposals would see sprinklers ‘installed in new high-rise blocks of flats’, and formed an ‘important step forward in the government’s commitment to ensuring residents are safe in their homes’.

The main element of the consultation – which ran until 28 November - was to reduce the building height ‘for when sprinklers are required’ from 30m and above to 18m ‘or other relevant thresholds’, while a new protection board is being set up ‘immediately’ between the Home Office and NFCC to ‘provide further reassurance to residents of high-risk residential blocks that any risks are identified and acted upon’.

About £10m of funding a year has been made available to support this board, which will provide ‘expert, tailored’ building checks and inspections ‘if necessary’ on all high risk residential buildings in England by 2021. It will operate until a new building safety regulator is established, and until legislation on a new building safety regime is introduced.

The board will ‘ensure building owners are acting on the latest safety advice’, keep residents updated and that interim measures ‘are in place’ for all buildings clad with combustible aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding. Its work will be informed by data collection work by local authorities to identify cladding types, and funded by another government contribution of £4m.

The consultation on the sprinklers and other measures forms ‘part of the first proposed changes to building regulations in England covering fire safety within and around buildings’, including introducing emergency evacuation alert systems for use by fire and rescue services. The NFCC published its response, and ‘champions and demands the increased use of sprinklers across the board’, as well as ‘lowering of the threshold for their use in high-rise blocks of flats’ from 11m.

New evidence, Dame Judith Hackitt’s review of building regulations and fire safety, recent fires and government announcements ‘have made it necessary to lower the threshold’, it states. With the consultation also covering emergency alert systems, the NFCC noted this has been recommended by the Grenfell inquiry’s first phase report; protection and business safety committee chair Mark Hardingham advising these ‘can be an additional tool for firefighters and incident commanders’.

It also looked at wayfinding signage, supported by the NFCC and mentioned as a recommendation in the Grenfell inquiry report, with additional signage able to ‘provide valuable assistance to firefighters carrying out their work’ when information on floor and flat numbers ‘can be critical’.

Roy Wilsher, NFCC chair, commented; ‘Sprinklers should be mandatory in all new residential buildings from 11m (or 4 floors) and above, at a minimum. NFCC has previously championed the requirement for sprinklers from in high-rise block of flats above 18m, connected to a full review of linked measures in ADB. Currently there is a gap for protection of buildings between 11m and 18m.

‘With the threshold for sprinklers now being considered separately from a number of closely related safety measures, we believe the threshold should be lowered to 11m.’

NFCC sprinkler lead Gavin Tomlinson stated: ‘The recent fire at the Bolton student accommodation on 15 November 2019 highlights only too well that fires do not discriminate, and that an 18m threshold is arbitrary. The NFCC will continue to lobby for more widespread use of sprinklers in many building types, and especially where they are home to vulnerable residents. The revising down of height thresholds is an important step in the right direction.’

Mr Hardingham said of the alert systems: ‘It should be recognised, however, that such systems have the potential to place people at risk if they are not part of a package of measures. NFCC recommends that further consultation with FRSs and fire sector experts is crucial to plan and enable any effective use of these systems in buildings.

‘It’s imperative that if emergency alert systems are to be used in existing buildings, that the approval is subject to the Building Regulations approval process and the fire service are appropriately consulted. Installing an emergency evacuation system cannot be a reason to relax other safety measures. Buildings should never require the use of such a system if designed, built, managed and maintained appropriately.’

Mr Wilsher added on that note: ‘The NFCC has called for government funded research into evacuation, and we would caution against the introduction of these systems being viewed as ‘job done’. As well as the fact that they are only likely to be used in new buildings, a stronger focus needs to be placed on ensuring all buildings are built to be safe, and are maintained appropriately, so that such systems never need to be used.

‘In that regard, legislation should be strengthened to ensure that, over time, fire safety standards in buildings are brought up to current standards where it is reasonable to do so and the building sector avoids simply applying a ‘like for like’ replacement leading to declining fire safety in buildings.’