Adam Bannister

Editor, IFSEC Global

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Adam Bannister was Editor of IFSEC Global from 2014 through to November 2019. Adam is also a former Managing Editor at Dynamis Online Media Group.
August 8, 2019

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“Millions of pounds wasted”

Sprinklers absent from Holiday Inn and London schools when fires broke out

“Pure devastation”: The Holiday Inn in the West Midlands (Credit: @WalsallFire)

Neither the Holiday Inn devastated by fire last week nor any London educational establishments that suffered fires this year had sprinklers fitted.

Those arguing for widening the scope of regulations that make sprinklers mandatory in certain buildings will feel vindicated by the devastation wrought on the Willenhall Holiday Inn, near Walsall, on Friday.

The owners reportedly ignored the advice from fire safety officers to fit sprinklers.

The blaze, which was tackled by 50 firefighters, is thought to have started accidentally in a sauna. No one was hurt but the site was described by the fire service as one of “pure devastation”.

Regulations in England stipulate that only buildings built since 2007 that are taller than 30 metres must have sprinklers fitted. The Holiday Inn doesn’t appear to have breached regulations, saying that the West Midlands site “was significantly below” that.

“No one was hurt, but does that make it a success?” Tom Roche, FM Global

“The fire at the Willenhall Holiday Inn is yet another example of the expectation gap when it comes to building regulations,” said Tom Roche, senior consultant for international codes and standards at commercial property insurer FM Global.

“Thankfully no one was hurt in this fire but does that make it a success? A small fire in the sauna has resulted in the entire building being completely destroyed, rendering it unusable for the foreseeable future.”

The London Fire Brigade has revealed that none of the 57 educational premises it attended to deal with fires this year (until 25 July) had sprinklers fitted. This includes nurseries, primary and secondary schools, colleges and universities.

It said only 2.3% – or 13 – of 565 school fires attended between 2014 and July this year were in buildings with sprinklers installed.

LFB has called for sprinklers to be mandatory in all new schools and for them to be retrofitted in existing schools during refurbishments.

“Sprinklers save lives”

LFB deputy assistant commissioner for fire safety Charlie Pugsley said: “Sprinklers are the only fire safety system that detects a fire, suppresses a fire and can raise the alarm. Sprinklers save lives and protect property. Millions of pounds are wasted every year repairing fire damage in London’s schools when sprinklers could have prevented the spread of fire.

“This is not just about saving money; when a school is closed it disrupts a child’s education, impacts on the local community and affects parents by closing breakfast and after school clubs.”

The fire service said that sprinklers were particularly vital during the long summer holidays when buildings are empty and fires can smoulder undetected for long periods.

Continued Pugsley: “The easiest time is to fit sprinklers when schools are being built or refurbished. I find it staggering that such a simple safety measure is so easily omitted from the designs.”

The LFB released the data in the week after the 10-year anniversary of a fire that destroyed Thomas Fairchild School in Hoxton, east London. The school had to be rebuilt and reopened three years later.

Said Nicki Stewart, UK director of fire extinguisher manufacturer Firexo: “By failing to fit sprinklers at these London schools and colleges, it is clear that the government is neglecting its duty of care towards young people.

“There needs to be a far greater emphasis on proactive methods.” Nicki Stewart, Firexo

“With fires inflicting millions of pounds worth of damage and putting lives at risk, there needs to be a far greater emphasis on adopting proactive methods to tackle flames, rather than just simply reacting to incidents. This can best be achieved by utilising new technologies. The government must act now to address its outdated attitudes towards fire safety.

“Whilst sprinklers are an important step towards preventing small flames from erupting into something potentially devastating, the public sector desperately needs to embrace fire safety innovation. Despite recent incidents of fire dominating headlines, there is still a fundamental lack of concern throughout the UK. To really make a difference, it’s time for this mindset to change.”

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “All schools are required to have an up-to-date Fire Risk Assessment and to conduct regular fire drills. All new school buildings must be signed-off by an inspector to certify that they meet the requirements of building regulations and where sprinklers are considered necessary, they must be installed.

False economy

Tom Roche said the Holiday Inn fire exposed how foregoing sprinklers on the grounds of cost was shortsighted and a false economy given the costs of restoring damaged buildings and lost earnings during closures.

“This is hardly the outcome that customers and the general public would anticipate from a small fire in one room. Clearly, automatic sprinkler systems – although not required by regulations for a building of this size – would have been able to control the fire until the fire service arrived, ensuring that the building, if not the sauna, could still be used soon after the event.

“Building owners must take note that current building regulations are designed to save lives alone and not their property. If they desire a different outcome and resilience, then they need to take the extra steps to protect their assets.”

Our previous reliance on fire compartmentation to halt the spread of fire is based on outdated thinking, fire risk consultant Alan Cox has written this week, and sprinklers could play a bigger role.

The Future of Fire Safety: download the eBook

Is the fire protection industry adapting to the post-Grenfell reality fast enough? At FIREX International 2019, Europe's only dedicated fire safety event, some of the world's leading fire safety experts covered this theme. This eBook covers the key insights from those discussions on the developments shaping the profession, with topics including:

  • Grenfell Inquiry must yield “bedrock change” – and soon
  • After Grenfell: Jonathan O’Neill OBE on how austerity and policy “on the hoof” are hampering progress
  • Hackitt’s Golden Thread: Fire, facilities and building safety
  • Fire safety community has to “get on board” with technological changes

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