Sprinklers and enlightened self-interest
TV presenter and long-term sprinkler campaigner Nick Ross teams up with FIRE Editor Andrew Lynch in calling for the government to act now to install domestic sprinklers.
We have tamed fire so completely it is easy to forget that it is one of the most primeval dangers. Throughout history fire has provoked unbearable terror. It has been the scourge of fine buildings and great cities. And it has always been indifferent to wealth or class. 'Til now.
Today, as a general rule, it's the poor wot gets the flame. Almost all fire deaths are in domestic dwellings, and almost all those asphyxiated and barbecued in their homes are poor. Despite the fact that nine out of 10 households now have smoke alarms, home fires still killed over 300 people last year, injured another 5,000 and traumatised thousands more, the majority of them infants or the elderly.
In one sense 300 dead is good. It's a huge advance on almost 900 who perished in one terrible year of domestic fires little more than three decades ago. It is a tribute to better regulations, better building design, better furnishing materials and safer wiring, as well as a decline in smoking and deep fat frying.
In another sense 300 is bad. It is still a lot of people - imagine a cortège of 300 hearses. And, sadly, it is a perfectly decent justification for not taking much stronger and more urgent action. This is why government ministers and their advisers have been pouring cold water on sprinklers. They are decent people, every one of them; but they simply don't see the need. The trend in fire deaths is going in the right direction and there is no political incentive to saddle house builders or housing associations with more red tape. Ministers won't even throw their weight behind our ultra-low cost sprinkler proposals which would tap into existing household plumbing; they won't even make a strong case for a voluntary code about fitting sprinklers to social housing.
I accept their political calculation. If only the 300 victims had been rich and famous. If only they had huddled together and perished in one vast conflagration their agony would have made headlines, shaken Westminster and provoked drastic and immediate action. But they weren't and they didn't.
Yet the very fact that Whitehall could have acted differently exposes the truth that none of these deaths was an accident. Each was a consequence of political inaction as much as of any immediate spark. Had each home been protected with automatic fire suppression then in every case, or at very least in almost every case, death and injury would have been averted.
Wales and Scotland have taken the lead on sprinklers. England, once the heart of Empire, once upon a time bursting with leadership instincts and pioneering spirit, is now tired, content to bump along as an also-ran.
Sprinklers will happen here, of course. It will take a long time before all our housing stock is fitted. But one day they will be ubiquitous. Maybe as with car safety we must start upmarket and move down. Fire chiefs know it makes sense and maybe with persistence we can get the ultra-low costs system past the regulators and thus directly into the homes where protection is needed most. Yes, one way or another it will happen. But if only our leaders would lead.
"Successive governments have treated the Fire Service with benign neglect for decades," former Fire Minister Mike O'Brien told me on the terrace of the House of Commons the day after he had lost his job.
It was a great quote from a smart Fire Minister and one that is repeated reflexively by all and sundry when we lapse into maudlin self-interest. Our current Fire Minister, Bob Neill, has a saying of his own − "enlightened self-interest" - and he finds a way to drop that into most addresses.
Mr Neill is genuinely enamoured by the Service and is probably only challenged in that regard by former Fire Minister Angela Smith. However, his commitment to all fire sector events is uncontested in this reporter's opinion and should rightly be acknowledged. It is why FIRE is offering our support in return.
The installation of domestic sprinklers in all new homes is a Fire Service juggernaut, continually gaining momentum and support. I agree with Nick Ross, who says that one day they will be ubiquitous. That may seem ridiculous to the sprinkler lobby given the government's policy on passing new legislation, but I agree that 'one way or another it will happen', as Nick says.
The dangerous myth is not that a small fire in a large building will lead to multiple sprinkler head activation and flooding, when in fact one sprinkler would douse the flames with minimum disruption; rather that insurers are against sprinklers. They are not. It is a no-brainer for them - in fact it is nothing less than insurance for the insurers. Likewise, enlightened elements of the construction industry are not against sprinklers, they are passionately in favour. They offer sustainability, resilience and, crucially, are environmentally friendly. No building designer, architect, or builder wants a 'towering inferno'; it's just many have yet to see the truth.
FIRE does not want to see the Fire Minister do a John Prescott - blame others for misjudging the mood of the times. Rather, we want to see Mr Neill take the credit for pushing through the single most transformative life-saving act in English fire history.
In forthcoming issues we will build a coherent narrative, showcasing the growing body of research that will convince the hardiest of nay-sayers. We will feature case-studies from brigade after brigade, sponsored by support from chief after chief.
With the rock-solid backing of the broad sprinkler lobby - a cross-section of industry, Fire Service, trade unions, local authorities and chief fire officers - we will provide a convincing portfolio of evidence. The Minister merely has to take note, pass on his concerns and press for those universal appeals: reduced environmental impact, sustainable buildings, and above all, cost-effectiveness.
The Fire Minister's commitment to the fire sector should indeed be applauded, but if he is to have a worthwhile impact, a truly lasting legacy, he need only do this one, small thing. I can assure him that we as a truly united UK fire sector will support him every step of the way and I promise never to talk about 'benign neglect' ever again. So go on, Minister, live up to your words and demonstrate that 'enlightened self-interest'.
Posted December 12th, 2011 at 0950 by Andrew. Comment by emailing: email@example.com
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