Despite research showing sprinklers significantly reduce economic damage and environmental impact following major fires, hopes for mandatory legislation remain low.
Recent high-profile fires, such as October’s blaze at a Dunelm Mill store in Coventry and the inferno that consumed the Sony warehouse in Enfield during the UK riots in August, have led to renewed calls for mandatory sprinkler systems.
However, while every high-profile incident sparks fresh concern, Business Sprinkler Alliance research reveals that less than 1% of commercial and industrial premises in England and Wales are covered by mandatory government sprinkler regulations.
With 99% of all fires in protected buildings controlled by sprinkler systems, and four or less sprinkler heads activated in 60% of cases — why are businesses so reluctant to install them?
The media perception of sprinklers has caused major problems, according to Frazer Argryos-Farrell, vice president and managing consultant (property risk) at Marsh Risk Consulting, with images such as the Lynx advert, where all sprinkler heads go off at one time, adding fuel to people’s misconceptions.
“People believe that if a sprinkler system is set off there is a deluge and the whole lot goes off,” he says. “But if one head is set off, that activates until the next head heats up to the required temperature.”
Argryos-Farrell adds that people need to change their mindset and weigh up the chance of significant fire damage compared to slight water damage: “A lot of stock can take water damage, but it won’t handle fire damage,” he adds.
Martin Hall, director of commercial underwriting at NIG, says research dispels the common misconception that a fire causes all sprinkler heads to operate at once.
“Sprinkler systems are recognised as being one of the most reliable and successful forms of fire control available,” he explains. “Statistics show that losses in buildings in which a suitable sprinkler system has been installed are 90% less than those unprotected.”
Although deaths resulting from commercial fires are rare, in November 2007 a blaze in an unsprinklered warehouse in Atherstone-on-Stour resulted in the unfortunate, and unnecessary, death of four firefighters.
Although this has not resulted in any change to building regulations — which do not require sprinklers for single storey buildings for industrial or storage use up to 20 000m2 — Alan Brinson, executive director at the European Fire Sprinkler Network, says that firefighters are questioning why they should put their lives at risk, especially if the fire poses no risk to the public.
“As it stands now, in big warehouse and industrial commercial buildings, there is no requirement to fit sprinklers in this country,” he explains. “There is for warehouses if they exceed 20 000m2 but, to put that into perspective, that is several football pitches — it is about three Wembley’s. It is enormous.”
Brinson adds: “A fire in that kind of building can easily lead to its total destruction because quite often, when a fire brigade gets there, the blaze is already through the roof. They face a difficult choice about whether they go in but, if everyone has escaped, they are only going in to rescue goods. Firefighters are increasingly taking the view they shouldn’t be put at risk.”
Threat to life
Recent events, such as the UK riots, have demonstrated what businesses can expect from the fire brigade in the event of a major blaze, highlights Mike Crane, commercial director at LV.
“If there is no threat to life, firefighters are focused on containment, rather than getting into the premises and trying to extinguish it,” he says. “From their perspective, it’s absolutely right. But it shows that sprinklers have to be looked at much more broadly than as an insurance demand.”
Crane adds that, on some of the larger risks, insurers will insist on sprinkler protection, but that alone is not enough: “If you try and fund sprinklers around the effect on your insurance premium, that is not looking at it broadly enough,” he explains.
Crane believes that many insureds are only receptive to the benefit of sprinklers when they are rebuilding after a major loss where sprinklers were not fitted. “At that stage they tend to be very mindful of what the benefits would be — so we need to get that kind of knowledge out there on a wider basis before a total loss occurs,” he adds.
There is no doubt that the UK is falling short of its European cousins when it comes to the installation of mandatory sprinklers — and it is some way behind the US as well.
Andrew Miller, risk control manager at Allianz Commercial, looks to the Scottsdale experiment in the US, which has been carried out over the past 15 years, as something that could provide weight to the argument for mandatory sprinklers in the UK.
“Scottsdale is a town in the US where they decided to install sprinklers in all new buildings,” explains Miller. “They estimate that for more than 40 000 homes, 50% of which are protected by sprinklers, in those 15 years they had no deaths in any of the sprinklered houses. However, 13 people died in the houses without sprinklers, demonstrating that the lives of 13 people could possibly have been saved if those properties were sprinklered.”
Brinson adds that some European countries also take a different approach. “If we go across the channel to France, if a warehouse larger than 3000m2 is built, sprinklers must be installed. In Germany it is 2000, and the Netherlands 1000.”
“These countries have taken a different approach; they had some bad warehouse fires in France, which resulted in lots of pollution and road closures. The fire brigade said it couldn’t do anything with the buildings and that it was dangerous to try. That led to the government realising it had to fix the problem another way. In Germany, there was pressure from the fire brigade as well.”
Miller adds that environmental positives, proved by the Scottsdale experiment – which show sprinkler systems discharged an average of 341 gallons of water per fire, whereas the fire brigade released 2935 gallons per fire – could also be used as an argument in the UK to lobby government.
“People think that the water from sprinklers is going to cause damage, but actually the fire brigade discharges far more water into a fire than sprinklers do, because it is a targeted discharge,” Miller continues. “The fire brigade cannot get to the heart of the fire very easily — if it is in the middle of the building they will hose water through the roof or through the windows. Sprinklers will detect and start to extinguish a fire in its relatively early stages; whereas the fire brigade may take 10 minutes to get there, in which time the fire might have spread considerably.”
Brinson agrees that environmental factors could be used as an argument to sway the government towards the positives of sprinklers. “The carbon balance, the amount of water and the toxicity of things that are produced are valid reasons to consider,” he says.
According to the Association of British Insurers, following its call for a wide-ranging review into the cost-benefit case for sprinklers – as part of the proposals in Tackling Fire: A Call for Action – two separate research projects are being conducted with a view to lobbying government to make sprinkler systems mandatory in all new and refurbished commercial buildings.
James Glockling, technical director at the Fire Protection Association, says that it depends on the basis of the cost benefit analysis as to whether this could be the turning point.
“Government policy and building codes being life-safety-focused generally respond to incidents where there has been a loss of life or near miss. The commercial estate is very well controlled through the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 and loss of life through fire is much rarer than in the home. Therefore, while businesses may be critically damaged, local social infrastructure destroyed and the environment polluted, if no one died, government will have only limited interest.”
Miller agrees that, regrettably, the only way that any legislation is going to come in is following a disaster, perhaps with a substantial loss of life.
“If you look at all the legislation that has been enacted over the years, it has come out of disasters where there has been mass loss of life,” he says. “Things need to go wrong before people start to put them right.”
He adds: “The fact that you lose a building worth £20m, as long as no one dies and it is insured, does anyone care? Not really. People say the insurance industry pays, but really everyone pays as it is only recouped through client premiums. The fact that we give substantial discounts to sprinklered buildings shows our commitment to them, and it will pay for itself over time. But it is that upfront cost in particular that people are not willing to commit to in the current economic climate.”
Miller highlights that some of the reluctance to install sprinklers into new builds is the fact that they have got to be designed for occupancy.
“If you are building a property on a speculative basis to let, then sprinklers may not be adequate for the tenants that move in,” he says. “That is sometimes the argument used — there is no point in putting sprinklers in because we don’t know what the use of the building will be.”
Brinson agrees: “It may make financial sense for a company to have sprinklers in a warehouse, but the company that uses the warehouse doesn’t usually build it. The developer gets a plot of land, gets planning permission, puts up the building and, during the building phase, there is really no risk at all because there is nothing in the building and nobody working there.
“Then they flog it to someone who finds a tenant; it is only at that point, when somebody occupies the building, that the risk is there and by then it is too late.
“So, the current system doesn’t work. There is a market failure. There is no incentive for the developer to put sprinklers in the building because it is a long-term benefit and they are not planning on holding onto it. Not only that, but the cost of the sprinklers is not reflected in the extra price that they could sell the building for, so there is no incentive to install them.”
So how likely is a change to government legislation? Miller says that he has had talks with the Department for Communities and Local Government and he believes there is “no chance” of the government changing building regulations in the “short term”.
Glockling, who says the UK is in a “diabolical” situation, adds that his conversations with the DCLG have not been positive either. “It said its remit is that for every piece of new legislation it brings in, it needs to get rid of two, which is obviously very difficult to deal with,” he says. “There are certain criteria when it comes to changing our building codes they will take notice of, and business and property protection is deliberately not one of them.
“You will see sustainability in there and you will see things like convenience. So if you feel it makes it inconvenient for people if their local Sainsbury’s burns down, then lobby on that point, but that is fluff and not the real issue. These are not the right grounds to be lobbying on serious issues.”
Brinson concludes that even if the government started reviewing the documents that impact this in 2013, new legislation would not be out until at least 2016.
“It won’t be earlier than that and it might even be later,” he says. “Having said that it is not likely to change at all because it is not on the logic of life safety.”
• It is estimated that if sprinklers are installed and activated by a fire in a commercial and industrial building, the quantity of water used to fight the fire is approximately 0.02% to 17% of the quantity that would be used of sprinklers were not installed and a fire were to occur.
• Sprinklered fires are estimated to release between 7.8% and 21.6% less carbon emissions compared with an unsprinklered fire in a similar building
• It is estimated that annual water use for fire fighting in England and Wales is between 25.9m and 18.8bn litres for unsprinklered commercial and industrial fires. If all of these fires were to occur in sprinklered buildings it is estimated that the quantity of water used would fall to 4.5m litres per year
How the UK compares with the rest of the EU
In 2007, amendments to the Building Regulations 2000 Approved Document B (Fire Safety) Volume 2 came into force.
Under these regulations, only warehouse premises in England and Wales of 20 000m2 or above have to be fitted with sprinklers. In the UK, the existence of Local Acts currently makes provision for some local authorities to require buildings over 7000m2 to install fire prevention measures - including sprinkler systems - in buildings that otherwise could be exposed to unnecessary fire risk.
In the majority of the largest EU countries, fire sprinklers must be installed in commercial and industrial properties with an average floor space one tenth of that regulated in the UK:
Denmark: 2000m2 to 5000m2 (dependent upon fire load)
Business losses on the continent are far lower that the UK's £865m in 2008. For example, in Germany in 2008, damage as a result of fire cost £400m - half that of the UK, and the European Insurance and Reinsurance Federation has reported that commercial fires statistically decreased by 6% in Germany in 2008.
Source: Business Sprinkler Alliance
Case study: Wessex Foods, Lowestoft, Suffolk, 11 July 2010
Wessex Foods processes raw meat into burgers, with its main client in the UK being Burger King
The fire resulted in the loss of 150 jobs due to the permanent closure of the site, with a significant impact on the local economy
Local road disruptions and other longer-term issues, such as odour problems, affected the local area
The fire took 10 days to extinguish completely, due to serious structural collapse that [prevented fire crews from entering the building to extinguish remaining fires.
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