Supermarket fires make great copy for the press - spectacular images of leaping flames are just the thing editors want. But the day after when the newspaper is only good for wrapping chips, the report becomes history and the only consequences are personal and local.
The loss of jobs, often permanently, the scars on the landscape and the loss of a vital community amenity can blight an area or a town for decades. So, when we get a real success, the fire and rescue service (FRS) should rightly promote and advertise it as a vindication of all fire professionals have been saying for decades: sprinklers work and are a cost effective means of keeping the UK's economy secure and keeping communities sustainable.
On Wednesday, February 22nd, one such example occurred in South West Wales that helps to prove the value of a responsible attitude to fire safety in the commercial world married to a reliance on what has time and again been shown to be the most effective active fire protection measure.
The Asda superstore in Llanelli is part of a larger shopping complex built in the late 1990s. Sprinklers had been installed and the premises complied with existing statutory requirements in respect of fire safety. On the day of the fire, the store itself contained stock estimated to be of the value of £1.9 million with a daily turnover in excess of £100,000.
At 2015 hours, fire broke out in racking in the central aisle of the store, among a large quantity of crisp packets. The fire took hold in the rack very quickly due to the highly combustible nature of the contents and flames extended to the roof of the store. At this point four sprinkler heads actuated, surrounding the rack and suppressed the fire.
This generated a large quantity of heat and smoke and upon arrival, the first crews sent an assistance message to "make pumps six and Aerials One" in anticipation of potential spread and to undertake search and extinguish operations in an unknown operating environment.
Once entry had been effected, the fire was rapidly extinguished and the store ventilated to remove smoke and aid damage control. The operation of the sprinkler alarm led to the safe evacuation of 25 staff and 60 customers.
The store remained shut for just over a day and opened for business the following Friday, 24th February. The Mid and West Wales (MWW) Fire Investigation team are currently investigating the cause of the fire but the fact that a community resource has been saved, staff retained their employment, customers were safe at all times and firefighting risk was minimal was all down to four sprinkler head activating!
Of course, such a success is a rare thing. The proportion of premises fitted with automatic suppression systems remains pitifully low and with the cost of commercial losses on the rise again, the failure nationally to recognize the economic and social benefits of such systems is hugely detrimental to the UK PLC. And we don't have to look very far to see where outcomes have not gone so well.
Supermarket and superstore fires occur on a fairly frequent basis and often result in total losses. In 1993, a massive fire in Sainsbury's in Chichester destroyed the whole store and rebuilding took several years and caused massive disruption to staff and customers over this extended period.
Morrison's, Tesco's, Somerfield and Asda have all had their share of major fires within stores in the last five or so years. While large losses such as these fires only represent 3% of all other building fires, according to recent DCLG research the cost of these fires represent 57% of total monetary loss.
This report concluded that some of the factors that cause such losses include a delayed or extended attendance time of the FRS, increased likelihood of being a target to arsonists and the larger compartment sizes, essential to the modern superstore.
However, the size of the store is not always the only problem. There is now a trend for the development of smaller, more local stores that sell a smaller range of products but hold stock levels that appear to be proportionately greater in less free space.
Very often these premises are developed by converting building such as pubs, extending existing properties or knocking several properties into one. sometimes creating a complex that can provide practical difficulties for operational firefighting personnel. It is unlikely that sprinklers are installed in these premises due to perceived costs and difficulty of retro fitting.
But the risks are not confined to financial or social. In the USA in 2007, nine Charleston firefighters were killed when fighting a fire within a sofa superstore. The fire, which began in a loading bay, caused a flashover that engulfed firefighters carrying out a search inside for a missing employee within the extended and complex structure - the building had no sprinkers.
In Bristol in 1996, a firefighter was killed while attacking a fire in a Leo's supermarket, again an unsprinklered, older building which had been subjected to alterations and conversions over many years.
Newer buildings also have risks associated with them. As building techniques and practices have changed so have the ways buildings perform in fire. The issue of sacrificial buildings has raised its head many times in recent years. This follows an acceptance by companies that in the event of a serious fire, the building will be destroyed and, post fire, removed and replaced with a new, equally sacrificial replacement.
Trends in the ratio of building cost claims compared with the cost of contents lost show the proportion of building costs reducing, indicating a possible reduction in the spend (and hence robustness) on the structure. It is likely that the strategy of accepting a total loss rather than a total save is still more prevalent than the service would like. But while this approach may make business sense in the purest "bean counting" fashion, the social and economic damage cannot be ignored.
While the Asdas, Tesco's and other large businesses may have the capacity to retain staff even when their place of work has been destroyed, most businesses do not. A factory or shop destroyed is more likely than not remained closed for many years and many do not reopen.
The social impact of unemployment, particulary in times of near recession, has the potential to wreck families, create social turmoil and poverty that can end up in a vortex of decline and deprivation leading to all the social issues associated with poverty: ill health, poor levels of education, crime and disorder. As happened with the economic closure of businesses and industries, enforced closure due to a fire will have the same long-term impact.
Improvements in building regulations, constant hectoring by the fire and rescue services and other pro sprinkler organisations and the enlightened view of some business and building owners are slowly starting to increase the number of buildings with automatic suppression measures. And the results can be seen for themselves.
An accidental daytime fire in a Newcastle school in January, was extinguished by a single sprinkler head actuating. The school suffered no disruption and the room was back in use within seven days.
On the morning of Tuesday 31st January 2012, West Midlands Fire Service crews attended a fire in a 6-storey block of student accommodation in Bagot Street, Birmingham. A fire had occurred in the kitchen area of one of the student 'pods' occupied by seven people in the recently built block. The fire was discovered to be 'Out on Arrival' as one head of the sprinkler system had activated and extinguished the fire. Crews were engaged in some clear-up work before leaving the scene and some smoke damage occurred inside the common living space within the 'pod'.
Unfortunately, for the general press, these successes do not provide much of a storey - very much a case of "dog bites man" rather than the more newsworthy reverse case.
In that respect, the Asda fire in Llanelli has been different in that it has been picked up by the press but again the success of the sprinkler system has been underplayed by the media (although not by the Service).
A database held by the National Fire Sprinkler Network showed that in 2011, there had been 35 fires where sprinklers had been installed. Two fires occurred in premises where sprinklers had been installed but decommissioned or turned off. Both these premises were totally destroyed by the fire. The fires where sprinklers had been installed were suppressed with little damage caused.
At a time when every penny counts for the UK economy as a whole, preventing and protecting from fires in commerce and industry has never been more important. Investment of a couple of percent of building cost in a fire suppression system means that businesses and not arsonists or fate determine the future of abuilding or business.
The successful stop in Llanelli, has shown the social and economic value of suppression systems: the service and the wider fire industry now needs to develop the traction behind this and other successes to advance the cause of sprinklers in central government and in the wider economy.