Paul Berry, Director of Fire Suppression, Johnson Controls, calls for action in ensuring sprinkler protection in all buildings
In the months and years since the Grenfell Tower tragedy, there has been a marked increase in focus on fire safety. In particular, the role that sprinkler systems play in fire suppression – and the regulations around their installation – have been brought starkly into the light.
Recently, London Fire Brigade called for mandatory sprinkler systems in all high-rise buildings – rather than just those deemed ‘high enough’ according to current regulations – and fire safety professionals around the UK rallied behind LFB. Bristol City Council announced earlier this year that they are to install sprinklers in all 59 of their high-rise residential blocks, a welcome sign that the tide is turning in the industry, and that councils will do what it takes to ensure fire safety and avoid tragedy.
Only since the official inquiry into Grenfell have the consequences of neglecting sprinklers when implementing fire safety plans come to light – and this much is clear: sprinklers save lives. For fire and security professionals and building managers, it is high time not only for review and reappraisal, but for action – they must safeguard employees by ensuring sprinkler systems in any and all buildings exist, and are both effective and compliant.
While the regulatory discussion surrounding sprinklers is relatively new, the technology behind them has been mostly unchanged for decades now – a temperature of more than 68 degrees causes a bulb in the nozzle to fracture, discharging water through the sprinkler. The quicker this happens, the better, and this hardware has been proven to work by controlling or ideally extinguishing a fire as soon as possible. A fully-functioning and well-maintained sprinkler system should prevent fires from ever getting out of control, and these basic components do succeed in preventing further damage.
But what measures can fire safety and suppression teams put in place to ensure that their sprinkler systems are up to the job? There are four key focus areas: integration, intelligence, regulatory compliance, and choosing the right technology partner to help carry out an install or upgrade.
The first major way to improve the effectiveness of sprinkler systems is to integrate them into a wider network of fire and safety systems across a building. With the rise of IP-enabled devices which can communicate with one another, from smoke detectors to CCTV cameras, there is a whole host of new opportunities opening up to safety teams both in terms of efficiency and available services.
Managing your whole fire and security landscape through a single centralised platform or control system means you can widen your insight into what is going on around the site, and help decrease the admin load on frontline staff. Integrating smart systems can provide facilities managers with deeper insights, faster situational judgement, and reduced administration workloads, which enable both an improved health and safety regime and a reduced bottom line.
In this new landscape, safety teams can increase their efficiency through a combination of innovative products and integration, connecting devices and processes which before were isolated or watched over by a single operator. For example, if fire detectors across the site are integrated with the latest CCTV technology, operators will be better equipped to improve detection and verification. In the case of false alarms, CCTV cameras can help to aid the early detection and verification of fires by allowing users to view the area to gain a fuller picture of the situation – acting as a secondary investigation strategy. Building management systems can also be monitored offsite, often in groups, to consolidate administration and reduce outlay while maintaining an overview of a site.
“Now is the time to act – not hypothesise – about improving fire safety and installing sprinkler systems”
Creating Intelligent Systems
As well as better efficiency, another great benefit of IP-connected safety devices is the data that comes with them. By connecting sprinkler systems to intelligent devices throughout the building, safety teams can gain access to monitoring data from offsite and receive regular updates on any anomalies or alerts. This has multiple benefits: the obvious increased safety for people and assets in the building, a reduced need for on-site teams to physically investigate incidents, and improved convenience for on-duty safety personnel.
A connected sprinkler system, for example, could perform basic analysis on an activated unit along with other safety systems to establish whether it is or was a real fire, and if so, how severe it is. This is currently a hypothetical ability in most facilities, but with the Internet of Things and its associated technologies becoming more ubiquitous in a wide variety of industries, it will not be long before increasingly sophisticated, connected, and intelligent sprinkler systems are commonplace.
Current incarnations can incorporate intelligent alert systems, which are particularly useful for security managers’ night rotations. Take a warehouse manned by operational staff – during the day, an alarm sounding or a sprinkler activating will be quickly noticed, but during unmanned hours, an alarm may not be noticed for a much longer period of time, increasing the chance of a fire getting out of control. Connected and intelligent sprinkler systems can send signals out to responsible persons’ iPads or phones, via text message or app alerts – whichever method is most useful and has the most impact. That in turn helps to provide the earliest possible warning, meaning site teams can catch a potential fire before it develops into a large or uncontrollable blaze.
Ever-changing Regulations and Compliance
No amount of technology, however, is enough on its own. It is essential that fire safety teams and building managers carefully consider how equipment and installations will help them achieve regulatory compliance. Following the tragedy at Grenfell Tower, it is evident that regulatory compliance should never be a box-ticking exercise, concerned only with the letter of the law – regulations are designed to advise on and help achieve best practice. The ultimate aim, after all, is to reduce health and safety risk to the lowest level possible.
Now, sprinkler regulations are under more intense scrutiny than ever before. In their current form, only buildings above a certain size and application must have sprinkler systems built in from the earliest stages of planning. With the London Fire Brigade’s ongoing calls for this to be extended to all residential tower blocks, regardless of height – and the increased focus on the role of sprinklers in the media and in parliament – there is a significant possibility that a much larger proportion of new-build public buildings will be required to have sprinkler systems incorporated from the very beginning in the coming years. What is more, it is becoming increasingly likely that existing buildings, again regardless of height or application, will be required to be retrofitted with sprinkler systems to bring them up to code. This could even be extended to commercial buildings as well as residential.
As a result, those responsible for fire safety must make sure that they are aware of all areas of responsibility covered by the relevant regulations. It is not just a matter of installing sprinkler systems: servicing, maintenance, system design, and operation must all be properly attended to. Safety teams must ensure that all sprinkler systems are kept in full working order, checking components on a regular basis and running simulations where possible. Regular hazard reviews and testing carried out by certificated companies is essential, and your systems must be checked by qualified engineers. There should also be an attitude of honesty when it comes to upgrades and change – if a system fails to comply with regulations, or has degraded over time, then cost worries must always come second to compliance.
Selecting the Right Technology Partnership
That does not, however, have to mean that there is a black and white choice between a satisfactory balance sheet and the safety of employees and the local community. By working with an expert fire suppression provider, businesses can achieve regulatory compliance on a workable budget through a combination of intelligent integration, admin reduction, and personalisation.
In the rush to avoid repeating past mistakes, there is certainly a risk that some fire safety teams may settle for less well-resourced suppliers, or those without the expertise required to effectively and safely future-proof essential sprinkler systems. To avoid this, companies should be looking for professional organisations with a proven track record of successful installation – who can be product agnostic if needs be – to install and service the correct equipment for the job.
A full-service offering is a positive sign that points to a good provider – a consultative organisation that can assess needs and create solutions accordingly, specific to particular environments and systems, is key to reducing risk and achieving compliance. Companies that can provide installation, servicing, and long-term maintenance across an entire building, site or facility are most likely to be able to provide the right solutions.
Now is the time to act – not hypothesise – about improving fire safety and installing sprinkler systems. Building and fire safety professionals must choose an experienced technology partner who can advise on the best integrated and intelligent systems to protect lives. Only with the right plans in place can a reliable, compliant, and safety-first fire suppression system be created and installed. Fire professionals are responsible not only for reducing risk and danger, and promoting health and safety, but also for creating and managing the best possible fire safety systems – to do so, a well-functioning, well-maintained, integrated sprinkler system is paramount.