The discussion around fire safety in construction is an ongoing topic and remains as relevant today as it did five years ago, following the horror of the Grenfell disaster. Since then, the sector’s response has been lacklustre, although efforts to tackle outstanding concerns are now in progress. Recently, we have seen tighter restrictions on external materials, especially around cladding and measures to mandate sprinkler systems in new residential buildings over 11 metres tall are currently up for discussion .

Now, with the official relabelling of the Building Safety Act, this year could mark a crucial turning point in the debate surrounding best practice within fire safety. It is clear to me that the construction industry has not yet done enough to make fire protection a non-negotiable, and a long journey ahead remains to ensure residents are made to feel safe in their homes.

For this article, I would like to take a closer look at the effectiveness of sprinkler systems and their role as part of a wider system.

For context, the FPA reports that in the UK less than 0.5 per cent of sprinkler heads are required to be examined by law. In contrast, US law states all sprinkler heads must be checked annually. Considering an estimated 40 million sprinklers are fitted worldwide each year, it is not a stretch to say that current UK laws are falling woefully short of the mark.

While they are a well-established fire protection method, sprinklers are not a one-stop solution. A tendency to pedestal them has led to an over-reliance across construction, limiting innovation in fire safety.

Sprinklers as Part of a System

Sprinkler systems have their merits, and it is worth pointing out that they have a history of success. Research has shown that across the UK, no deaths have been reported in buildings where a working sprinkler system was present. Provided they are functioning properly, sprinklers can be an effective defence against fire. However, we must also refer to a wider context when assessing their reliability.

Different components within a building work together to defend against fire. If one of these is not tested or maintained properly, then the entire structure can be put at risk. It is vital that we maintain a holistic approach to fire safety and think of sprinklers working as part of a wider system composed of both passive (groups of systems that require human or computer-based action or motion to function) and active (equipment that slows the spread of fire through a building’s structure) fire protection.

Well known examples of active protection include fire extinguishers and fire alarms. Meanwhile, passive systems may include fire stoppers such as fire doors. Together these components provide robust protection, whereas alone they are much less effective.

It is important to remember that sprinkler systems fall under the ‘active’ form of fire protection. While they are automatic, they still require some form of interaction to activate. Inadequate maintenance, installation and testing can lead to failures in this automation, and malfunctions. A study by the NFPA highlights this danger and reported that a tenth of sprinkler failures happen due to a lack of maintenance. It is in these instances that we see the vital role of other reliable passive forms of protection when considering fire safety.

Sparking Innovation in Fire Safety

Relying on sprinkler systems also prevents the need for further innovations in fire safety. Sprinklers are reliable when properly maintained but they are not perfect, and developers still have a responsibility to understand fire safety systems and products. This means broadening knowledge around other technologies which can help to bolster individual component performance and the effectiveness of a building’s entire fire safety strategy.

Achieving this goal is not helped by the fact that fire safety knowledge is surprisingly low within construction. In results from one of our research studies, more than half of architects failed to accurately define definitions around passive fire protection. Moreover, 71 per cent were unable to define fire resistance (the ability of products and technologies to resist and prevent the spread of fire). It is deeply worrying that such uncertainty around fire safety concepts remains prevalent in the industry.

What we do know is that effective passive protection can limit the need for often expensive active protection. Sprinkler systems are often seen as low maintenance, however many overlook their costly installation costs due to the extensive work needed to fit them. Maintaining high water pressure and the accompanying significant energy needs are two such reasons.

Understanding the uses of all forms of fire protection can not only better equip professionals within construction to build safer, but there are a host of other benefits, such as reducing project costs.

A New Lease of Life for Fire Safety

Reducing our reliance on sprinklers will allow room for growth within construction.

Progress is being made and there is a light at the end of the tunnel in terms of the scientific advances happening within the industry. Much like our team at Zeroignition, groups, bodies and manufacturers are working hard to discover more efficient ways to incorporate fire safety measures and at a reduced cost.

By creating a more open-minded culture, we reduce the risk that developers will simply treat fire safety as box ticking exercise in hope of reducing overall project costs. Fire safety should not be side-lined for convenience and certainly not profit.

To improve the quality of fire protection and prevent tragedies like Grenfell from happening again we must focus on the bigger picture and understand how different forms of protection can complement one another. This means using passive technologies like fire retardants to complement active protection like sprinklers. It is not about reinventing the wheel here, merely adding more parts to make systems more complete.