London F&R Service Commissioner complains that advice on sprinklers is not being heeded. When will there be better recognition of the need for integrated fire safety?

On 11 February 2019 London’s Fire and Rescue Service Commissioner Dany Cotton appeared on Radio 4’s News at One programme to make (yet another) plea for better use of sprinkler fire suppression systems in high-risk residential blocks. The Commissioner spoke earnestly and honestly: sprinklers save lives, but she finds that fire service advice is simply being brushed aside, ignored. 

The evident frustration of the Commissioner’s call for real action on installing sprinklers in both new build and refurbished buildings can easily be understood. Emergency response to fire is to use water. And surely, on a common-sense basis alone, suppression including sprinklers has a role in the fire safety and protection strategies for buildings, especially where higher risks cause concerns?

Sadly, lack of attention on the benefits of sprinklers reflects a wider lack of focus on the risks of fire. Disasters such as Grenfell 2016 and Lakanal 2009, together with other lower profile fire events, suggest that sprinklers are not the only fire safety measure that needs to be given far more attention.
Fire protection – in all its respects – requires more emphasis. The key is integrated fire safety. That’s a variety of different measures, working together, firstly, to avoiding fire breaking out and, secondly, if fire does arise to prevent fire and smoke spread. Both people and property need to be safeguarded against the extremes of fire growth. A combination of steps is necessary, including the following:
Building management aligned with risk assessment to ensure that proper fire precautions are in place, including elimination of obvious sources of ignition, housekeeping to remove easily combustible material and attention to keep escape routes open for use in an emergency.

Attention to active measures – especially detection, alarm and suppression – to allow those in the building to react and move to a place of safety before conditions become untenable.
Appropriate access facilities for firefighters, both outside the building and especially inside.
Effective compartmentation (i.e. defined areas surrounded by fire-resistant boundaries) to limit the chances of fire spread and movement, especially paying attention to ensure that barriers built into the original structure are maintained and not compromised by any building work.
Protected escape ways and enclosures providing access to exit points and escape stairways – to physically keep out fire and smoke, all along the way through to a place of safety.
There are no magic solutions. Fire is unpredictable and its effects uncertain. No single measure on its own can be entirely relied upon, in all potential circumstances; and a combination of different measures is required to cope assuredly with whatever conditions may arise. That may require consideration of enhanced fire resistance, for example, for a longer time period that might otherwise be expected in view of the risks arising from the extremes of intensive fire growth and spread.
And if suppression is to play a role then it makes sense to ensure that other fire safety systems – such as smoke control, venting and fire resistance physical barriers, including fire protection glazing – are compatible with water, as an important part of the overall integrated plan.
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