Time for change
11 August 2017
In the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire, Stewart Kidd shares his view that sprinklers should be installed as standard in all new buildings and retrofitted in unsafe premises.
ONE OF the constant themes expressed by Whitehall’s fire regulators over the past 15 years can be encapsulated in the sound bite “sprinklers are not a panacea.” Sometimes, the put-down is expressed more generously: “Yes, sprinklers do a good job, but are often an expensive extra and are really only a property protection measure.” Setting aside, for a moment, the red herring that the management of fire safety should differentiate between property and life, let’s consider the regulator’s motivation.
It’s clear from responses by various Whitehall departments in the discussion on the wider role for fire-suppression systems that much of this is motivated by a desire “to reduce the burden on industry” and, in particular, “not to increase the costs of buildings”. It is to be hoped that this dogmatic and dated argument has been humanely put to sleep once and for all by the Grenfell Tower fire – and there are some who would argue that the Lakanal House fire should have done this in 2011.
The fire-safety issues that have arisen from fires in social-housing tower blocks can be summarised as follows:
- In order to comply with environmental and energy-saving standards, many tower blocks have been fitted with exterior cladding. Some of the components in such cladding systems have been deemed not to meet the necessary criteria, as established in Approved Document B;
- Many older tower blocks were designed with only a single staircase and have not been modified to remedy this deficiency;
- During the upgrading of external cladding and other service/utility improvements, the passive fire-protection measures installed in these buildings have been disrupted and evidence from the Lakanal inquest suggests fire stopping and other compartmentation has often not been reinstated;
- Asbestos removal has reportedly resulted in further degradation of compartmentation, as has installation of ‘concierge systems’ and CATV/fibre broadband in many blocks;
- In Grenfell Tower, it has been reported that a new gas main was actually installed in the stairwell. This contradicts all accepted fire-protection principles of running such services in fire-resistant risers, as required in AD-B.3;
- The loss of compartmentation – or at least where this affects individual units and means of escape – negates the principle of ‘stay put’, which is how some occupants of these tower blocks have been advised to respond to fire alarms or outbreaks of fire; and
- Where there is a fire-detection system in the common areas of these buildings, this seems to have been configured so as to communicate only with an ARC for transmission to the fire and rescue service. This has been explained as part of the ‘stay put’ policy, as it has been deemed ”too dangerous” for audible alarms to be used to alert occupants, especially where there are only single staircases. Many flats have also been fitted with domestic smoke alarms, but it’s likely that, in many locations, only mains-powered units will be in working order.
Much has been made in the media of the fact that neither Lakanal nor Grenfell were fitted with sprinkler systems. The Coroner, after the Lakanal fire, said in her Rule 43 letter to Southwark Council that the ”authority should consider the question of retro-fitting of sprinkler systems in high-rise residential buildings”.
While this proposal was dismissed, in a report to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, as “not cost-effective or practicable”, it is interesting that no one appears to have suggested at the time that there may actually have been a legal requirement to fit sprinklers. This would be in compliance with Section 3 of the Building Regulations 2010, which requires ‘building works’ to be fully in compliance with the various Approved Documents.
Personally, I find it very hard to understand how an expenditure of £8.6 million was not regarded as ‘building works’. A recent circular from DCLG appears to confirm that replacing cladding (at least) is certainly ‘building works’.
Having established the issues which appear to have led to both the Lakanal and Grenfell fires causing fatalities by escaping the compartment of origin, one is faced with the inevitable conclusions that there are only two options available to the owners of such blocks – demolition, or retrofitting a sprinkler system. There would have been a third option, which is to replace all the non-compliant external cladding, replace the internal fire separation, compartmentation and fire stopping to bring the blocks up to the present standards imposed by Approved Document B (ADB).
However, given the absence of a second staircase in these blocks, implementing this option would, in my opinion, lead to conflict between the occupants and the owners of the blocks, with the fire and rescue service playing referee. It’s also likely that the ‘stay put’ policy has lost any credibility it may have had and is most unlikely to be something that residents in high-rises will comply with in future.
In some cases, it may well be substantially cheaper to demolish these blocks and provide the sort of accommodation in which people actually want to live.
If it is accepted that sprinklers have a wider role to play in compensating for inadequate, or non-compliant fire protection in social housing, it’s easy to demonstrate their value.
Given their high success rate (94-97%) in dwelling fires, there is no doubt that any fire in a flat with a properly installed, working sprinkler system will be controlled, or suppressed by the system. In many cases, the fire will actually be extinguished.
The probability of a suppressed fire extending to cladding is low, so even if non-compliant cladding remains in place, it will be a much-reduced hazard. A contained, or suppressed fire should not spread to neighbouring flats or common areas, even if fire separation is compromised. If it does, then the sprinkler protection in those areas will operate.
The contained fires will not threaten the escape routes, so even a single staircase will be adequate to allow self-evacuation. Of all the options available, the installation of sprinklers will cost the least and cause the least disruption to tenants. Based on the Callow Mount project, and on several retrofit projects since then, it is likely that, in most cases, a block of the size of Grenfell Tower could be sprinkler-protected for around £2000-£2200 per flat.5 The cost could be lower if the work is undertaken as part of a full refurbishment, with no tenants in residence.
If non-compliant cladding is to remain, then the sprinkler designer will want to consider the need to review water-storage requirements where systems are not mains-fed. It would seem sensible to calculate maximum demand based on heads in one room in two or three flats operating at the same time. Consideration should also be given to connecting the waterflow alarm to the fire and rescue service via the ARC, with a clear indication that the signal is coming from a working sprinkler system.
It has always been my belief that sprinklers are undervalued in the UK and are seen as some kind of expensive ‘extra’ that is nice to have. In my work over the past 40 years, I have not changed my mind. Sprinklers could, effectively, be the panacea we are seeking. They will protect lives, property, reduce environmental pollution and promote national resilience through reduced job losses and manufacturing capacity. I think the time has come to normalise sprinklers and expect their provision in virtually all new buildings and their use in existing buildings, which are clearly not as safe as they should be.
Stewart Kidd is a security and fire protection specialist who celebrated 40 years in the profession in April 2014. Stewart will be a speaker at Fire Safety North on 11 October at 8am at EventCity Manchester as part of a breakfast briefing on Tall Building Fires. Other presenters include Andrew Thompson from Gerda and FireVu's Sean Quinn. It's free to attend the breakfast briefing and all delegates will get the chance to network while enjoying a bacon roll and refreshments. You can register for FREE at www.firesafetyevents.com
- For example, the decision in 2012 to repeal local building acts which gave the fire service the power to require addition measures in very large or very tall buildings.
- Interestingly, a US friend who is a fire marshal would not believe me when I told him there are at least 200 such blocks in the UK
- BMA (2003): Housing and health: building for the future: www.bma.org.uk/images/ Housinghealth_tcm41-146809.pdf
- This is the likely cost of the sprinkler system and basic boxing in. The sum does not include project-management costs, etc. which may be incurred where the owner wishes to do the work at arm’s length.