Coroner calls for fire sprinklers in tower blocks

Anyone reading my previous blogs will know I am a fan of fire sprinklers. In the right applications, they are without doubt the most effective fire protection for property and arguably life safety. The ongoing debate on the merits or otherwise of fire sprinklers in residential properties was rekindled this week. The report issued by the Coroner following the inquest into the Shirley Towers fire in April 2010 where two fire fighters lost their lives included a recommendation that all existing tower blocks taller than 30 metres should have automatic fire sprinklers retrofitted.

Flat fire

You may recall the retrofit project instigated in 2011 by BAFSA on a tower block in Sheffield that concluded retrofitting the premises cost some £1200 per living unit to install. In these days of austerity and with literally millions of residential flats involved nationwide it is unlikely Councils will rush to follow the Coroners advice. Also a cost benefit analysis published by BRE Global in the same year concluded installing sprinklers in multi occupancy residential building was at best on the margins of cost effectiveness.

Bear in mind that legislation is already in place for new builds. Approved Document B of the building regulations stipulates that for life safety, new residential blocks over 30m high must be fitted with sprinklers. In Scotland all new care homes, sheltered housing and high rise residential accommodation above 18 metres high are now fitted with sprinklers. In Wales all new residential properties including high rise will require the installation of sprinklers from October 2013. If these provisions bear fruit by way of reductions in lives lost then perhaps legislation will be extended to existing high rise blocks but frankly I doubt it.

The plain fact is that advances in fire protection technology, the introduction of the Regulatory Reform (Fire safety) Order 2005 and concerted fire safety awareness campaigns have resulted in year on year falls in reported fires and deaths and injuries from fire. Prominent amongst these advances are wider use of smoke detectors and alarms and the availability of low cost efficient fire extinguishers and fire blankets suitable for domestic use.

Sprinklers can save lives but in a domestic environment they are not the only or most cost effective answer, although I concede that for particular vulnerable individuals and group’s fire sprinklers may offer the best protection irrespective of the cost.