Sprinklers - the potential life and property saver

Posted on: 08 March 2018

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Between June 2016 and June 2017, the Fire and Rescue Services (FRS) attended 175,673 fires in England which resulted in 346 fatalities1. There has been a general decrease in fire incidents over the last 30 years, attributed in part to an increased focus on education about fire safety. However, fires remain devastating events, and in the same period, the cost per fire has substantially grown. The recent tragic case of Grenfell Tower also provides a sobering reminder to ensure the right fire safety precautions and protections are in place.

While smoking is the main cause for fires in residential properties2, other sources include unwatched cooking equipment and phones and tablets left charging unattended. In commercial buildings, causes may be deliberate, such as arson; or accidentally instigated by defective equipment, electrical faults or overloaded circuits. Whilst many fires are preventable, sprinkler systems provide important and often critical protection when things go wrong.


 

The Liverpool multi-storey car park fire on 31 December 2017 which destroyed 1,400 vehicles also highlighted the need for sprinklers. The chief fire officer admitted that:

had the car park had sprinklers, that would certainly have acted to suppress the fire. It may well even have extinguished the fire.”


 

The benefits of sprinklers

There’s strong evidence regarding the benefits of installing sprinklers, backed up by impressive safety statistics. To date, there has never been a single fatality in a home with fire sprinklers installed, according to the Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOA)3. It’s also been proven that sprinklers reduce injuries by at least 80%, reduce property damage by 90% and substantially reduce damage to the environment from fire4.

Despite this, the UK lags behind the rest of the world with regard to numbers of sprinkler installations. Only 2% of the UK’s council tower blocks have full sprinkler systems, leading to calls by the London Fire Brigade Commissioner, amongst others, to retro-fit sprinklers to all social housing blocks. Furthermore, UK fire chiefs have strongly recommended that all new and refurbished schools in the UK should be fitted with sprinklers. Currently, sprinklers are mandatory in all new school buildings in Scotland and Wales, but not in England or Northern Ireland.

Current legislation

UK fire sprinkler legislation varies according to location and type of property. In England, under the Building Regulations 2010 Approved Document B, it is compulsory to install an ‘Automatic Water Fire Suppression System’ (AWFSS) in:

  • new residential blocks over 30 metres high
  • uncompartmented areas of shops or self-storage buildings with an open plan area of more than 2,000m2
  • warehouses in England and Wales of an area equal to or greater than 20,000m2.

This is less stringent than in many other European countries where fire sprinklers must be installed in commercial and industrial properties with an average floor space one tenth of that regulated in the UK. For example, in France and Holland, sprinklers are required for sites as small as 3,000m². There is a compelling case to be made for sprinklers in any commercial premises on the basis of loss of production, business continuity, potential relocation costs and protecting business reputation.

In 2013, Wales became the first country in the world to introduce a law making sprinklers compulsory for all new homes. Scotland is currently proposing legislation to make the installation of sprinklers mandatory in all new-build social housing, placing the duty on local authorities and Registered Social Landlords (RSLs) to fulfil this requirement.

Saving lives

In November 2017, a fire on the second floor of the Westfield shopping centre in Stratford was controlled and extinguished by the sprinkler system. This prevented thousands of pounds’ worth of damage to the building and associated businesses, and ensured that only two of the thousands of shoppers and employees present sustained minor injuries.

In the same month, a fire originating in a communal kitchen in a student accommodation block was contained by sprinklers prior to the fire brigade arriving. The British Automatic Fire Sprinkler Association (BAFSA) website lists various examples of where sprinklers have saved lives, strengthening the case for sprinkler installations. The London Fire Brigade also lists schools, care homes and hospitals as places where sprinklers should be installed – or indeed any premises which caters for vulnerable persons, or those with mobility issues.

Sprinkler myths

Some have questioned the necessity for sprinkler systems in premises where smoke alarms are already installed. However, smoke alarms merely provide a warning of fire without the means to extinguish it. Therefore the combination of both smoke alarms and sprinklers is recommended for best equipping a property in the case of fire.

Other concerns exist over sprinklers malfunctioning and causing water damage. However, statistically there’s a higher chance of winning the lottery than the 16m -1 chance of a sprinkler malfunction5.
 

Sprinklers and insurance

Many insurers have openly welcomed the installation of sprinkler systems in both domestic and commercial premises. The Association of British Insurers (ABI) actively lobbied for fire sprinklers to be made a legal requirement in large warehouses in 2016, recognising that the average pay-out for commercial fires had reached £25,0006 for the first time. The installation of a sufficient sprinkler system can also favourably affect property insurance premiums.

The safety record of sprinklers is a strong recommendation for their installation in both residential and commercial properties. Any property owner (including private landlords and business owners) should consider whether fitting a sprinkler system could reduce the threat of damage to their premises and business, and offer crucial extra minutes to allow escape in the event of a blaze.


How it works

It is claimed that Leonardo da Vinci designed a sprinkler system in the 15th century and that modern day systems are based on his original design. Contemporary sprinklers work using the following method: upon the start of a fire, a plume of hot gas rises to the ceiling. A glass bulb within the sprinkler head heats up and, at a specific temperature (normally between 60 and 70 degrees Celsius), the bulb shatters, releasing a cap and allowing water to flow onto a specifically designed diffuser. This diffuser distributes the water in a spray pattern onto the fire to extinguish it. Normally, only the sprinkler heads directly over the fire are activated.


More information on fire protection methods and sprinklers can be found on Allianz Risk Director. This is a free online risk management service for our commercial policyholders and brokers. It provides comprehensive risk management information, guidance and support on a broad range of topics.