Sprinklers: could new proposals be a life saver?

Could one of these save your life?

Earlier this summer, the London Tenants Federation (LTF) urged the government to put an end to the ‘stay put’ policy used when there is a fire in a high-rise block. Following a recent spate of fires, the London Fire Brigade seems to agree and has apparently ditched stay put in favour of immediate evacuation. According to a report in Building this week, residents in Worcester Park, where a fire destroyed a six-storey block a few weeks ago, have now been advised by the LFB to leave their homes immediately if another fire breaks out.

The LTF is also calling for sprinklers and communal fire alarms to be fitted in all new and existing blocks and it seems the government is listening. A call for evidence published at the end of last year looked at Approved Document B of the Building Regulations, which includes rules on sprinklers in high rise blocks.

The government is now considering introducing sprinkler systems in more blocks. At the moment developers have to fit sprinklers in buildings more than 30 metres high. This is around 10 storeys – approximately the height that can be reached by a fire engine’s ladder. Anything above that and firefighters have to rely on dry risers to connect hoses and push water up to the higher floors. As witnessed at Grenfell Tower, this doesn’t always work effectively. The thinking now is that the height for fitting sprinklers should be lowered and a new consultation (click here to take part) asks whether the trigger height for sprinkler installation in new build blocks should be reduced to 6-storeys and above.

This sounds like a step in the right direction but the consultation only tackles new build. So what about existing blocks? Back in March, London Fire Brigade Commissioner Danny Cotton said: “As well as covering new builds, we want the Government to look urgently at new regulations to require sprinklers to be retrofitted in older residential blocks and any building housing vulnerable people”.

This poses a number of questions around accidental activation, vandalism and misuse as well as the sheer difficulty of retro-fitting systems into older buildings. But as ever, the biggest issue is cost – and more to the point, who pays: landlords or residents?

Fire and life safety expert Bradley Parker from Future Fire Systems tells us that early warning fire alarms can be installed more easily and cheaply than sprinkler systems. “Alarms can be set to sound at very early smoke stage, warning residents who can either tackle the fire (if it’s small) or escape,” he explains. “However, sprinkler systems will only activate when the room exceeds a particular temperature, by which time the fire will have already taken hold and could lead to loss of life due to smoke/fume inhalation if the occupants are sleeping.”  Bradley thinks the best case scenario would be a combined fire alarm and sprinkler system to act as an early warning system and an extinguishant.

This debate that will now rumble on until the government decides on next steps but at least the issue is now being widely discussed.  

In the meantime, if you live in an older block, make sure the issue of fire safety is raised at residents meetings. Talk to your block manager to make sure your flat front doors and fire doors are fit for purpose and regularly checked and maintained. And encourage your neighbours not to store bikes, prams or other bulky items in landings, stairwells or corridors. Best advice now appears to be ‘evacuate’ rather than ‘staying put’ so be safety- aware and make sure your escape routes are kept clear.