Few and Far between

The British Automatic Fire Sprinkler Association says the low level of sprinkler installations in high-rise buildings post Grenfell gives cause for concern.

The Chief Executive of the British Automatic Fire Sprinkler Association (BAFSA) Ali Perry praised a 2023 Inside Housing magazine report that highlighted the low level of sprinklers retrofitted in high-rise residential buildings since Grenfell.

The data from the Inside Housing report was gathered from 37 large social housing providers in England. It found that out of 1,768 of these, only 334 (18.9%) had been fitted with sprinklers, and over half of these were fitted in one local authority (Birmingham).

UK building regulations have required sprinklers to be fitted in new buildings taller than 11 metres since November 2020, but there are no requirements to retrofit them in existing blocks.

Perry notes that while there is currently no requirement for this, the risk is no less – and possibly greater – than for new blocks. “The Callow Mount sprinkler retrofit project report (2012) demonstrated that it is both cost effective and practical to retrofit automatic fire sprinklers in occupied high-rise social housing blocks.”

The Callow Mount project was the first high-rise retrofit sprinkler installation in the UK at an occupied 13-floor residential block in Sheffield. The project was funded and directed by BAFSA for the Sprinkler Coordination Group (SCG). Work at the building was undertaken in September 2011 by Domestic Sprinklers, with its main objective being whether it was practical to fit a sprinkler system without relocating residents. Fitting sprinklers in 47 flats – plus utility rooms, common areas, bin stores and an office – took less than four weeks. No occupants had to be relocated.

With this in mind, it seems illogical that more high-rise retrofit sprinkler systems haven’t been completed. The report suggests that cost is likely the key factor. “It costs around £500,000 to retrofit sprinklers per block – with obvious variance for the number of flats – and there has been no government grant to support councils or housing associations to do so,” it states. Ian Stewart, Assistant Director of Housing Management at Wandsworth Council, quoted in the report, points out that following the Grenfell inquiry, the money that had been “earmarked for the sprinkler retrofit was allocated to other important fire safety measures”, such as fixing issues with façades and fire protections inside buildings.

Are sprinklers needed?

The report continues: “Research from the University of Leeds showed that high-rise fires are riskier: there is a higher chance of fatality, in part because it takes longer for firefighters to access the building, get up to the fire floor and set up. It found that it takes more than 27 minutes to respond to a high-rise fire, compared with seven minutes and 45 seconds in a house. Sprinklers, however, provide a way to get water on a fire immediately.”

There is also the increasing risk of lithium-ion batteries. “Lithium fires are explosive,” says Arnold Tarling, a chartered surveyor and fire safety expert. “You go in about 15 seconds from a bit of smoke and overheating to a very big fire. And people don’t know about the risks, so they charge them in hallways, which cuts off their escape route. A sprinkler will keep the heat from the flames down and stop it spreading.”

For these reasons, BAFSA continues to advocate for sprinklers to be retrofitted in high-rise buildings. Perry said: “It is hard to believe that after the tragic events of Grenfell, other priorities outweigh the provision of fire sprinklers in similar buildings that could prevent a reoccurrence of such a tragedy. I am grateful to Inside Housing for shining a light on the lack of progress in introducing measures that could significantly reduce the chances of such an incident occurring again.”

Further reading: Download BAFSA’s Callow Mount report at: bit.ly/BAFSA_report

Read the Inside Housing report: bit.ly/InsideHousing_report

Read the University of Leeds’ study The fire risks of purpose-built blocks of flats: bit.ly/LeedsUni_study

Image credit | Shutterstock

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