lynchFIRE Editor Andrew Lynch argues in favour of the pragmatic approach to sprinklers and disparages distorted idealism

In an extraordinary twist that displayed a dismaying lack of foresight, the Executive of the National Fire Sprinkler Network forced the resignation of the Fire Protection Association’s Managing Director Jonathon O’Neill, who dared to play devil’s advocate in a debate on sprinkler installation at this year’s Fire Lecture. To be more precise, it was less a debate and more a pro-sprinkler rally, with the slight hiccup of disagreement on strategy and tactics. It came down to a decision of whether to retrofit or install in all new homes, aka the Welsh model.
The sprinkler lobby supports the ideal of all new homes; the pragmatists opt for retrofitting for at-risk groups. All agree with the effectiveness. Sadly, cost and political restrictions on new regulation have created a foggy battleground that is beginning to blur common sense and create a quagmire for the fire protection industry.
One of the problems is that the sprinkler lobby is isolating fire protection colleagues by being so single, or more precisely, narrow-minded. Now, FIRE has campaigned long and hard for sprinkler installation in domestic properties and holds many in the lobby with the utmost respect and occasional reverence. However, here they’ve got it wrong and should admit as much.
Jonathon O’Neill was one of the key players in affecting change to national fire safety policy to drive down deaths and injuries from fires and remains a potent ally for fire protection campaigners in the UK. To banish such a powerful contributor is pedantic at best and ludicrous at worst.
The ideal of sprinkler installations in all new domestic properties remains a noble aim and will be achieved in the long term. However, the strategy of forcing changes to legislation is flawed and the sprinkler lobby has been blinded by fervent idealism over a pragmatic, tactical approach which will reach the desired objective eventually.
Because of this inflexibility, efforts to form a consensus and target at-risk groups will be held back – meaning the sprinkler lobby is standing in the way of itself.
As Jonathon O’Neill said at the debate: “I believe that we will see more sprinkler systems appropriately installed to at risk groups and if this measure is as effective as I would expect to be, there would be no need to change building regulations to install sprinklers in all new homes; it will simply become demand led.
“Owner occupiers will demand this important safety system, just as they now install intruder detectors and other safety systems such as child stair gates. This approach will, in my view, be more effective in terms of lives saved and injuries avoided, and it will be cheaper and easier to implement.”
Ultimately it’s the same ideal, though unrestricted by dogma. The Fire Minister added his support and with allies like that, surely progress can be made sooner rather than later. Anybody interested in talking tactics to get it moving or are you more interested in winning the argument?