Holiday Inn fire: Should all hotels be fitted with sprinklers?

Fire-safety consultant

Author Bio ▼

Alan started his fire and safety career with Warwick County Fire Service in 1963 and served as both an Operational and Fire Safety Inspecting Officer. In 1976 he transferred to the West Midlands Fire Service until 1978 when he moved to the NHS as the District Fire Safety Officer for West Birmingham Health Authority where he was also the West Midlands Regional Health Authority Fire Advisor. During his NHS career he worked and studied for six months in the USA looking at different approaches to fire safety. He was also responsible for developing a computerized hospital fire evacuation program that was used in many major hospitals. In 1994 Alan moved to HSBC as its Senior Fire and Safety Officer responsible for the 80 countries in which the bank had a presence. During his career with HSBC he established a global approach to fire safety, organized many international fire and safety conferences, and developed a standardized method of protecting computer areas from fire. In 2005 he set up his own Fire and Safety Consultancy. During his career he has published a number of books on fire safety and made many specialist technical videos on subjects such as hospital evacuation, fire protection of electronic data protection areas, fire doors, and mail room safety. He has been awarded a Brooking NHS Travel Fellowship, Rospa Safety Professional of the Year (twice), FPA Premier Fire Safety Award, and The Prime Minister's Quality Initiative. He also contributes to many fire and safety journals including Fire, IOSH, Fire Surveyor, and Health and Safety Journal. He is a fully qualified Fire Service Inspecting Officer, member of the International Institute of Risk and Safety Managers (MIIRSM), Tech IOSH, and Qualified Fire Investigator. Alan has advised many large companies including the National Trust, Hospital Corporation of America (HCA), Kings College, Cambridge, Briton Hardware, BUPA, British Antarctic Survey Expedition, Chubb, Central Television, BBC, Radisson SAS, and the Falkland Islands Police.
August 7, 2019

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Contact tracing and COVID-19 director’s briefing

(Photo: @WalsallFire)

The recent spate of UK hotel fires – most recently at a Holiday Inn in Walsall – raises the issue of whether or not all hotels should be fitted with sprinklers.

There’s little doubt in my mind that our previous reliance on fire compartmentation to halt the spread of fire is based on outdated thinking. Many of the hotels that suffered fires recently were totally destroyed – so what has gone wrong?

Fire compartmentation

In theory, if fire compartmentation is properly installed and in the right locations, fire should be contained within the area it started. But in many buildings I look at, this is not the case and structural fire breaks are often breached or omitted.

Clearly, fire-resisting doorsets are getting more attention than ever, but again, in most buildings I visit they are far below standard – and in some cases the doors have just been removed.

So in my view, if these failings are not being identified in Fire Risk Assessments (FRAs) or by inspections carried out by Fire and Rescue Services (FRS), we need to consider the installation of sprinklers if we’re to halt these very costly and tragic incidents that are happening all too often.

Holes in fire compartment wall above a false ceiling

Fire risk assessments

There’s very little doubt in my mind that FRAs are generally not giving enough attention to the spread of fire between compartments. And it’s of little use having fire-resisting doorsets that are up to standard if the compartment around or above the door is not up to a similar standard. So perhaps we should extend the inspection of these items of fire safety to the fire compartment.

Fire-resisting doors not closing correctly

There is also great reliance on automatic fire detection systems being a main feature of the fire safety plan. Again, when I visit hotels it never fails to surprise me how many systems are poorly installed and designed, with detectors poorly positioned or absent from many key areas.

Fire safety enforcement

With the cuts being made to FRS budgets and the resulting poor levels of enforcement it’s not surprising that so many problems are going undetected for considerable periods of time. In one hotel I visited recently where fire safety standards were very poor, the FRS admitted they had not visited for seven years – and of course a lot can change in seven years.

Are sprinklers the answer?

If, as a country, we’re not prepared to improve how we protect lives and property, then we must consider sprinklers as a viable alternative. But it will need a concerted effort by all stakeholders to pressure the government into changing the law.

We must also consider the recent Ocado incident. The fire that destroyed the online supermarket’s automated warehouse in February may have cast doubt on the performance of sprinklers and fire detection.

So we also need to improve how we install and interact with these systems and how we truly learn from their failures. This will need a more open, honest and transparent approach from the FRS, the insurance industry and all other stakeholders.

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Douglas Barnwtt
Douglas Barnwtt
August 7, 2019 5:14 pm

Why not just protect and manage the sauna properly on the 1st place?
Anyone that works with leisure risks and isn’t aware of hazards, methods or protection or that they have burned down many risks shouldn’t be providing advice

Alan Cox
Alan Cox
August 8, 2019 7:15 am

When we speak about installing sprinklers the cost issue is also a frequent aspect so perhaps we need to change our thinking about how we install them. The secondary water supply can, in some cases, be the most difficult and costly area to provide, so why don’t we consider other alternatives? In low risk areas I have specified and installed systems that are simply run from the mains water supply and these are a fairly cheap alternative. Some years ago the NHS tested this type of system on a hospital ward bed fire and the installation worked well so why… Read more »

Jim Baker
Jim Baker
August 8, 2019 3:22 pm

Thank you, Alan, for this article and the benefits of your experience. Here are some of my own thoughts which, I hope, complement yours: To learn from failure is an effective way to learn, although it is perhaps unfortunate, particularly with regard to the cost of fire in human and property terms. However, if we fail to learn the lessons no matter what the cost, then that must surely be regarded as somehow worse? It is surprising then that there appears to be no system for learning the lessons. There is no regulatory mechanism for analysing trends in the fire… Read more »

Alan Cox
Alan Cox
August 9, 2019 9:01 am
Reply to  Jim Baker

Thanks, Jim, for your thoughts and I agree with all your comments. It is a great pity that there is no system for learning these lessons in the UK that is available to all interested stakeholders and unfortunate that organisations like the fire and rescue services, insurance companies and other stakeholders do not see the benefits of sharing both the good and bad news. However, I do think that the Fire Information Exchange Platform (FIEP) set up by the European Commission in the wake of the Grenfell tragedy goes some way to improve the situation and whilst I would like… Read more »

Harry Paviour
Harry Paviour
August 8, 2019 4:23 pm

I don’t think we can pass the blame for this total burnout on the lack of sprinklers or compartmentation. A large proportion of the blame must be levied with the quality of fire fighting Command & Control etc. If the fire started in a Suna, that building was large enough to create fire breaks, it was stated that as every one had evacuated the building, fire fighting was restricted to fighting the fire from outside. For a whole time Brigade, the Brigade should be embarrassed over this and the OiC transferred to Car Parking duties. If H&S interfered by saying… Read more »

Stephen Walker
Stephen Walker
August 11, 2019 4:58 pm
Reply to  Harry Paviour

Hi Harry “defensive” firefighting is standard operating procedure when fighting fires were there is no life risk. If firefighters had died do to carrying out internal fire fighting operations inside a building with no one reported inside we would be having a different conversation.

michael floyd
michael floyd
September 4, 2019 10:48 am
Reply to  Harry Paviour

Why should F&RS personnel fight fires more dangerously (from inside) when no-one is trapped and the owners can’t be bothered to protect the building any further than ‘last man out’ ? Who knows when it might collapse , even partially as in ceilings causing injury or death?

Dave Newton
Dave Newton
August 8, 2019 9:54 pm

Until Fire investigations are undertaken in the same manner as Air Accident Investigations, i.e. an impartial open and thorough examination with the objective of determining the whole causal chain and enforcing actions to prevent similar future occurrences. Rather than for the purpose of apportioning blame and liability. Then there will never be any real progress toward learning the lessons and preventing future tragedies that the rhetoric from politicians always promise to do and never deliver. I regularly read Coroner’s court enquiries that after detailed examination of the events give clear concise recommendations that are almost never acted upon. Pick any… Read more »

M Peace
M Peace
August 9, 2019 6:36 am

FRS inspectors don’t inspect buildings with property protection in mind. Their powers only allow them to insist on improvements that ensure the safety of people in and around the building.

With that being said, The Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 requires all FRS to advise their communities on fire safety matters which does include business continuity measures but this advice is often ignored on the grounds of cost.

Alan Cox
Alan Cox
August 9, 2019 9:35 am
Reply to  M Peace

In my opinion it is a great pity that FRS inspectors don’t inspect buildings with property protection in mind because life safety and property protection are so closely linked. I do however, remember speaking to a group of FRS inspectors explaining to them that when I was doing their job it was policy to point out both the statutory work together with any other problems that we noted and to confirm all observations in writing – surprisingly enough, a letter did encourage a lot of owners to carry out some of the goodwill advice. I was a little surprised by… Read more »

Stephen Walker
Stephen Walker
August 11, 2019 5:09 pm

It needs to be understood that an FRA under the RRO looks at life safety. The investigation will determines the overall risk that the FRA stated but clearly the active and passive fire protection measures were sufficient to allow all occupants to evacuate. As previously stated, insurance risk surveys will determine if additional measure are required to protect the building, but often buildings like this are not worth the cost to install sprinklers, however Sauna fires are well documented and there has been a lot of research on the effectiveness of installing sprinklers. My conclusion, retro fitting sprinklers for the… Read more »

Phil Murphy
Phil Murphy
August 31, 2019 10:00 am

The LGA Guide to Fire Safety in Flats, while being weak and inadequate in many respects, does contain a neat system for specifying varying types of FRAs, including one type type 4) that amounts to a compartmentation survey. If staying put is to be considered acceptable by many of the occupants in flats with a stay put policy, landlords should beprepared to demonstrate that the passive fire protection can support it beyond any doubt. “It usually works” just doesn’t wash with high rise flat dwellers any more and it’s perfectly understandable given the profile, and number, of examples of catastrophic… Read more »

Daljit Sharma
Daljit Sharma
September 3, 2019 2:55 pm

I thought that there is a law that requires all hotels were required to have the sprinkler system in place and must also be maintained as per the manufacturers’ recommendations,

michael floyd
michael floyd
September 4, 2019 10:40 am
Reply to  Daljit Sharma

Not in UK !

Michael Floyd
Michael Floyd
September 3, 2019 9:22 pm

Did anyone die in these fires? No – then I think these buildings have met our very limited legal requirements. Until owners are unable to get insured to run such poorly protected businesses, they will go on building them and let their insurer take the hit if it goes wrong. This approach is not acceptable for buildings built for us – the taxpayer, as the disruption on loosing a school, hospital or block of flats to so many families is enormous, as are the ensuing costs which will not be fully insured.

Percy Jokhi
Percy Jokhi
September 4, 2019 1:28 am

Alan Thanks for sharing, interesting article and if read with an unbiased open mind has a lot of learning. This is a joint responsibility and all possible measures should be taken to protect lives. As always learn a lot from you.