All about sprinklers?
Bucks CFO Mark Jones supports FIRE’s call for lobbyists to adopt a more balanced approach to fire safety:
I am a firm advocate for sprinklers in all premises in which they will add to the protection of the occupants and of the property. Even having declared myself as being so (as a risk engineer who seeks to identify all possible control measures and apply a blended set of appropriate, reasonable and financially wise solutions), I find the overwhelming rush to advocate sprinklers might be seen as a capitulation to the fact that other risk control measures higher up the hierarchy are not going to be effective or, arguably, even considered?
Measures such as sprinklers are not a panacea – they are like seatbelts and motorcycle crash helmets – they only prove their value when something has gone badly wrong with the safety management system. If we are to identify sprinklers as desirable in more than higher risk premises, we must also try and advocate other control measures, which, in lower risk premises, would render them as safe as reasonably practicable.
The approach to use passive protection has worked well over the years and the value of design, “means of escape” and “means of securing means of escape” should not be forgotten, nor should the value of education of occupants, early detection and evacuation warnings such as smoke alarms. Each of these measures can lower risk to a level of tolerability which would not require retro-fitting of fixed protection.
The Risks of “Imported” Policies
I am a keen gardener and know that what grows well in one area may not flourish quite as well in another environment. After observing the debate reported in last month’s edition, and taking that analogy into the importation of fire policies, there are clear risks in seeking to take what seems to have been a successful policy in one country and simply applying it to another. We often hear the US sprinkler approach quoted but certain facts are not incorporated (to my reading) when the comparisons are made. Firstly, there is an almost negligible amount of social housing owned by the public sector in the USA. There are comparatively few federal laws, with a preference for “small government”, and none governing the fire safety arrangements within the households of citizens. Why is there reluctance to legislate in England?
The evident resistance to a legislated or regulated approach also causes us to consider why there has been reluctance to do what is seemingly self-evidently good business. If sprinklers are such a good idea, why is there a cohesive resistance (perhaps reluctance might be more appropriate) network? I propose that one notable explanation is that, like most safety installations, the cost of installation is not borne by the beneficiary of the protection that is conferred. Our inability to quantify the true costs of fires is also contributory. If we cannot accurately assess the costs of fire events in certain types of buildings and reliably predict their frequency, the whole argument for paying for installations to mitigate their impacts starts to look flaky.
The Case for Schools Protection
At the recent Parliamentary meeting, at least one speaker spoke of sprinklers in schools being a safety improvement. Whilst technically probably true, few people are recorded as having been injured in fires in schools, the majority of which occur when schools are not in full use. By trying to utilise emotive arguments such as safety, we could diminish or occlude the real and most compelling argument for sprinkler installation in schools – the economic one.
The loss of a school building not only affects the pupils but also has an unprecedented effect on the parents, not just in terms of disruption but also the fact that they have to cope with the effect that it has on their children. The loss of a school does not just affect that individual school but has a ripple effect across the whole of the area, impacting upon local trade and commerce.
An important aspect of education is consistency, in the standards that are taught, the routine that children get into in school and their relationships with other students and most importantly their teachers. This can be lost overnight with a serious school fire. The education of our children has never been so important with successive governments consistently talking about the importance of education for the future of economic growth for this country. Why then if it is so important do we not ensure that we protect this to the highest possible standards?
I have frequently heard people related to schools which have had bad fires speak of the losses such as schoolwork and data. The phrase “a whole project” or a “whole year’s course work” are the quantified terms I have listened to. As a business continuity manager, however, I conceive such losses to be an indictment of the business continuity arrangements of education authorities. Essentially, if these items and products are so important as to cause the emotional turmoil that is offered by school teachers, they should have been better maintained and protected against loss. The use of sprinklers could offer the required safeguards and provides this protection but other, simpler methods of maintaining and “backing up” this important work are viable too.
Fire Authority Advocacy for a Sprinklered Society
My own political leaders often ask about the cost and the pay-off from expenditure plans I request backing for. It strikes me as self-evident that, if I am ever to request a strong emphasis on the protection of areas by the fitting of sprinklers, it would seem a very reasonable request from those politicians to ask which response resources they might be able to erode once the sprinklers were all operational. I contend that there would be considerable weight added to the lobby for a sprinklered society if we could quantify the lower expenditure required for response services and perhaps add in the lower levels of risks to fire crew members at the same time. I once heard a friend who is a powerful advocate for sprinklers describe then as “a firefighter you only have to pay once” – a strong commercial argument.
A Refreshed Approach to Smoke Detectors
I wholly support, and will campaign for, sprinklers in all premises with the potential for high risk occupants but this does not necessarily required a regulated approach. We have some success locally in convincing planners to require sprinklers in some social housing which is under development. The CLG ministers are often accused of being dogmatic in their attempts to “bully” local government but their forthright approach does offer some possibility for the improvement of smoke detector effectiveness.
Picking up from the government’s recent “empty bedroom” taxation methodology, there may well be value in issuing the threat of benefit reduction to people who do not have working smoke detectors. Whilst enforcement might be challenging and identification difficult, the announcement itself, coupled with a push on battery checks by local fire services might make as big a short-term difference in improving public safety as any long-term ambition for a sprinklered society.
Time for a Refreshed Approach?
I firmly support engineered protection as a fail-safe measure but we are in danger of rushing head-long towards a very high-end control measure with no weighting being given to other possible risk reduction methodologies. Let those of us who advocate sprinklers do so on the basis of risk analyses which take into account all risks and the possible control measures and set our advice against quantifiable losses.
If we want government to regulate and give mandate, it will be necessary to have a far wider range of stakeholders demanding the change than simply fire policy makers and engineering vested interests.
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