Strong business case for sprinkler protection of large premises

The general consensus within the fire and insurance industry is that there is a powerful business case for installing sprinklers for property protection, but building owners and duty-holders need more education on the issue.

This was the message from a thought-provoking workshop at the FPA’s Fire Sector Summit on 4 November. Stewart Kidd, secretary general of the British Automatic Fire Sprinkler Alliance (BAFSA), outlined the “perverse fact” that no legislation currently exists that compels property owners to protect buildings; however, fire authorities are obliged to provide protection for property, while local authorities are required to promote business continuity planning.


He outlined several problems, including the fact that many industrial buildings are constructed speculatively without knowledge of what they will be used for. The purpose of large single-storey buildings may also change over time, and they may be owned , operated and managed by a multitude of different parties. Kidd highlighted the Primark Warehouse fire, at Magna Park, Lutterworth, in November 2005, which resulted in the destruction of the entire building and its contents, with the sprinkler water disconnected. The building, he said, was owned by a pension fund. Primark was the leasehold tenant, with the facility operated by TNT. Other elements of the building, such as security and M&E, were sub-contracted. The fire-fighting water was provided by Magna Park and the fire water system maintenance was outsourced to three separate companies. Under such set-ups, it is easy to see how there might be confusion over who is in charge of fire safety and who is the duty-holder, explained Kidd.


The impact of fires on the environment is also under-appreciated, said Kidd, especially in terms of water pollution and reprocessing of fire-fighting water. Other problems include buildings with significant fuel loads, confusion over when a storage facility might be deemed an industrial building, modern methods of construction, and supply chain management demanding extreme flexibility of building layout.


Taking up the argument in favour of sprinklers, Andy Jones from Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes Fire and Rescue Service highlighted the absence of legislation in England mandating the installation of sprinklers, except for buildings in excess of 20,000m2, and he compared this with other European countries, such as Belgium, where it is a statutory requirement to fix sprinklers in buildings greater than 5000m2 in size.


Jones illustrated the worth of sprinklers by comparing fires in two different premises of similar size – one in January 2014 at Coolectric’s warehouses and office in Newport Pagnell, the other at Massmould Ltd’s warehouse in October 2013. The incident at Coolectric involved a light bulb, which blew above high-bay storage, landing on and igniting polystyrene wrapping below. Around 7000 items of stock were destroyed in the fire, the company’s business was disrupted for three months and it lost customers. Firefighters arrived within 8 minutes of the fire being reported and 10 appliances attended – half the resources of the Fire and Rescue Service. The cost to the service was equivalent to 300 day-to-day fire incidents and £60,000. Environmental damage amounted to 1300 tonnes of CO2 and use of 1200m3 of water was used to fight the fire. The Fire Service had recommended the business install sprinklers in 2001, but this advice had not been followed up.


At Massmould Ltd, the fire occurred at 6.30 on a Saturday morning. Two appliances attended and the fire was extinguished within an hour. The appliances released more CO2 than the fire itself, and less than 100m3 of water was used to extinguish it. The employees of the business were back at work on the following Monday. “The company had chosen to install sprinklers,” said Jones. “As a result, there was minimal disruption and millions of pounds saved.”


Dr Jim Glockling, director of RISCAuthority, completed the workshop’s presentations by giving delegates an overview of the insurance industry’s perspective on sprinklers.


“Fire is different to other forms of insurance,” he told the audience. “In security, you can only lose so much. You’re not talking about the total value of the business, and when you consider other issues relating to a fire, such as business disruption, it’s clear why the sums can be much higher, and the ratio of material damage to business continuity is quite different.”


He suggested that the view from central government is that “normal market forces should apply” in regard to installation of sprinklers. “But for that to happen,” said Glockling, “you need enlightenment of people.”


He argued that the installation of sprinklers is entirely in keeping with managing directors’ and CEOs’ responsibilities to act in the long-term interests of their businesses’ shareholders, and that if a fire occurs on a premises that hasn’t been protected with the appropriate safeguards, there should be a less forgiving attitude towards the managing director of that business than, in general, is currently the case. Referencing the oft-quoted statistic that 80% of companies go out of business within 18 months of experiencing a fire, Glockling suggested that a better statement might be ‘within 18 months of a fire, 80% of businesses show themselves to be incompetently managed’.


Pointing to a study by the British Sprinkler Association, which indicated clear cost-benefits for installing sprinklers in warehouses, Glockling suggested that procurement processes may be broken and that the solution was to educate businesses better. However, he also warned against the pressures for ‘sprinkler-lite’ alternatives that are “nibbling away at the quality” of sprinkler systems.


“Both in terms of performance and in reliability, sprinklers are unsurpassed and that is a credit to the infrastructure to which they are designed,” he insisted.