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Sprinklers fight back!

09 February 2012

A report details how a pilot project, sponsored by the sprinkler industry through the British Automatic Fire Sprinkler Association was undertaken in September 2011. The project resulted in the retrofitting of a fully comprehensive sprinkler system in a 1960's high-rise residential care home block of flats.

Sheffield City Council owns the block, which is operated by Sheffield Homes as sheltered housing. This report demonstrates that it is both cost-effective and practical to retrofit automatic fire sprinklers in occupied, high-rise social housing blocks without disturbing residents. It challenges the Chief Fire & Rescue Adviser who in a 2011 report to the Department of Local Government and Communities said: “it is not considered practical or economically viable to make a requirement for the retrospective fitting of fire suppression systems to all current high-rise residential buildings”.

A primary objective of the Sheffield high-rise sprinkler project was to determine the practicality of installing a complete system without the need to decant residents. The project installation commenced on 30 August 2011 was successfully completed on 28 September 2011.

Taking less than four weeks in total to complete all the work, the adopted approach ably illustrates how significant improvements in life and building safety can be readily achieved with minimal disruption.

Sheffield Homes and Sheffield City Council place the highest value on providing appropriate levels of fire safety in all their housing and recognise that there can be additional safety issues relating to tower blocks. They were willing participants in this innovative project as they considered it would contribute to developing national thinking on how fire suppression techniques can be applied retrospectively.

There are over 4,000 high-rise blocks owned, or managed, by local authorities across the United Kingdom. Information provided by the Department for Communities and Local Government list 213,199 individual dwellings in 3,778 high-rise premises in England.

There are 797 such blocks in Scotland and 15 in Northern Ireland but unfortunately comparable figures for Wales were not available at the time of writing.

In the twelve months prior to the commencement of the Sheffield pilot project installation 13 fires in comparable properties occurred in the UK. These that have resulted in 9 fatalities and 12 people, including 5 fire fighters, requiring treatment for injuries or smoke inhalation.

This comprehensive report demonstrates that it is both cost-effective and practical to retrofit automatic fire sprinklers in occupied, high-rise social housing blocks of that period without disturbing residents.

In scoping the project it was agreed from the outset that the full and true costs of the Sheffield scheme should be recorded and openly reported.

The findings of the Sheffield pilot project provide evidence, claims BAFSA, of the practicality and cost effectiveness of installing sprinklers in older high-rise blocks. In addition, the project has created a template and methodology for the design of sprinkler systems in other un-protected high-rise blocks elsewhere in the country. Particularly, the pilot project has illustrated that:

  • It is possible to retrofit sprinklers into occupied, high-rise, social housing without decanting residents
  • Such installations can be undertaken on a fast track basis.
  • The installation cost of £1,150 per flat compares favourably with other fire protection measures
  • BS9251 can be successfully used for designing such installations
  • Tenants, residents and their families feel safer knowing they are better protected with a sprinkler system in place
  • The potential trauma and disruption to individuals and communities following a fire would be reduced.
  • Sprinklers have the potential to significantly reduce the cost of rehousing tenants and undertake major refurbishment work following a fire
  • The true installation and whole life-costs can permit a cost benefit analysis of sprinkler installations in relation to potential repair and rehousing costs following a fire.
  • Retrofitting sprinklers as part of a major refurbishment project would incur only a small proportion of the overall costs.
  • The full life-costs of a sprinkler system should be compared with other upgrading fire protection measures so that the benefits of each can be carefully weighed up.
  • The retrofit design and installation can be adapted for high-rise blocks with different layouts.
  • The outcome of the report could be used to review the findings of the BRE report from 2004 to reflect the cost effectiveness in existing high rise blocks.

The BASFA suggests that existing guidance documents and approved codes of practice should be updated to reflect the findings of the pilot project

In consequence of success of the Sheffield pilot project findings BAFSA and the SCG recommend that the retrofitting installation of sprinkler systems should be positively considered by all authorities when reviewing or planning:

  • Major refurbishment programmes
  • Development of fire safety policies
  • Fire risk assessments
  • Cost effectiveness of other fire safety measures
  • Compensating for deficiencies or defects in fire safety provision or non compliances with current fire safety standards

It is also contended that the outcomes of the Sheffield pilot project, and the findings of this report, provides realistic evidence for housing authorities, housing associations and fire and rescue services to seriously consider the potential use of retro-fitted sprinkler installations in existing unprotected high-rise blocks of flats to:

  • Enhance the safety of resident and occupants of high-rise blocks
  • Reduce the risks to life and injury experienced by fire-fighters working in high rise blocks.
  • Reduce the personal trauma and social impact of fire on individuals and neighbourhoods.
  • Reduce the costs and impact of a fire on hard-pressed local authorities and other property owners financial consequences and burden of fire.
  • Reduce the demands on fire and rescue, police and ambulance/health services in responding to the consequences of major fires in high rise accommodation.

BAFSA believes these findings will permit national government, local housing authorities and private sector housing associations to realistically re-consider the use of sprinklers as part of a comprehensive fire safety strategy for existing unprotected high-rise blocks across the UK.

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