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Business Sprinkler Alliance questions fire safety decisions in built environment

16 August 2022

RECENT YEARS have highlighted the impact of design decisions made in relation to fire safety during the construction of buildings and the ensuing need for remediation. According to Iain Cox, chair of the Business Sprinkler Alliance, the implications of design decisions made today about a building and its fire protection can realise an impact for three decades and more.

Cox stated: “Judging by the many fires across the commercial sector, we need to think about these decisions and also about the outcomes we want in the event of a fire. With an average of 490 fire episodes per month damaging industrial and commercial buildings, are people really making informed and active decisions when it comes to fire safety in buildings?”

In considering whether conscious business resilience decision-making is an afterthought when it comes to fire, Cox has referenced one of the many fires in industrial and commercial buildings of late (ie the fore at the Clean Laundry in Ross-on-Wye in early May, which was reported by Fire Safety Matters).

Despite the valiant efforts of 60 firefighters using 12 appliances and two aerial ladders to bring the blaze under control, the 2,600 m2 laundry facility was destroyed and local residents advised to close windows and doors during the blaze, with smoke and ash reaching the nearby town centre.

The business, which specialises in laundry services for the hospitality industry, moved into the purpose-built ‘state-of-the-art’ facility in 2005. Sadly, the loss of the building will cause loss of earnings along with business disruption, as the facility will now have to be rebuilt.

A decision on rebuilding is yet to be made. In the meantime, orders are being redistributed to other laundries and staff redeployed at other sites in the wider group. It’s reported that the business, which is part of Clean Linen Services, is launching ‘disaster recovery and contingency plans’.

Active protection

“Given the scale of this fire,” urged Cox, “why was active protection like sprinklers not considered when the facility was built? Fires in commercial laundries occur on a regular basis, whether due to the ignition of lint build-up or the spontaneous combustion caused by laundry that’s dried and stacked while still hot. It’s a foreseeable type of event. Surely a building like this is an ideal candidate for active fire protection?”

Continuing this theme, Cox observed: “In developing or operating such a building, the likely fire scenario may not be considered. Instead, decision-makers focus on other areas with the risk of fire catered for by management actions and following of the Building Regulations, even though the guidance on the latter is limited.”

Ultimately, Cox explained: “We need to question if these actions deliver the fire safety outcomes we’re expecting of the buildings of today. Further, the labels we are ascribing to buildings are often misleading. Are they a laundry, a factory, a warehouse or retail? Do these labels necessarily tell us all we need to know about the risk involved?”

Often, buildings are designed and built for the broadest possible use with regulatory guidance dictating few requirements. There’s no incentive for the developer to go beyond the minimum requirements in these buildings. They will be built as a blank shell by individuals making decisions on fire safety at the time they are built. The owner of the building in the future then has to consider the constraints involved and, perhaps, may be unaware of them.

Question of understanding

Cox believes the challenge is that, if you want something different, then you will have to specify it. “To do that,” he affirmed, “you need to be aware of what is not included within the current guidance. There’s a lot of discussion going on about the guidance, but what does it say? One thing that has emerged from the Grenfell Tower Public Inquiry is that not everyone understood the guidance or the risk of fire safety decisions taken. This is not isolated to just this incident or residential buildings alone.”

There may be a lot of assumptions in terms of outcomes as fire safety is not a foremost discussion item in a conversation between the developer and the person who is eventually going to own the building. It may simply be superficial conversations about cost, services and materials for example, but not one focused on compliance.

“At the end of the day, if you don’t make an active decision and your building is susceptible to fire then that’s what you pay for. If you are looking for a different outcome then you have to be involved. You need to be clear and specify that outcome. Why deliver a warehouse or factory and decide to leave out fire safety measures, only to find that five or ten years later the facility is completely destroyed due to a fire event?”

*Further information concerning the Business Sprinkler Alliance is available online at www.business-sprinkler-alliance.org