It is a simple fact that sprinklers in buildings save lives. I spoke earlier today on their value and called on the Minister to act, reinforcing the benefit versus the minimal cost.
Bill Grant (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) for securing this important debate. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning), I declare an interest: I was a member of the Fire Brigades Union for 31 years and I think I am a fully paid-up out-of-trade member as I speak.
Experience over decades has shown that sprinkler systems, whether stand-alone or as part of other fire protection measures, are designed to contain or extinguish fire, and are certainly adept at reducing the spread of fire, if not altogether preventing it. They are a valuable asset for buildings with high occupancy numbers and potentially protracted evacuation times. Those of us who have experience as emergency responders know that despite exit signage, calculations of flow rates, widths of exit routes and so on, public behaviour in an emergency situation is often unpredictable. Sprinklers are also a life-saving asset in domestic dwellings.
A properly installed, acceptance-tested and maintained sprinkler system affords reliable protection for occupiers and, equally importantly, firefighters, in the unfortunate event of a fire breaking out, and brings reassurance to the insurers of the buildings and individuals. The difficulty in bringing the public and developers on board is the mistaken perception that sprinkler systems drive up prices to a horrendous level. That is not the case; it is a myth. Such installations account for a small percentage increase in the cost of a property—estimated at around 1%—but what is the price of life? Surely, lives are priceless.
There is also wariness about accidental water damage should the system fail and inappropriately discharge, but that is a very rare occurrence. A popular misconception is that all sprinkler heads in a building could suddenly activate rather than it being generally limited to the compartment of origin. In many instances, a single sprinkler head activates—perhaps with a neighbouring one—and the damage is minimal. We should bear in mind that fire water run-off from firefighters’ hoses—as my colleagues who worked in the fire service will know—has the potential to inflict much greater water damage, and has done so in the past.
Reliable and responsive installations are now seen as preferable to, or at least complementary to, large-scale offensive firefighting in buildings where, because of changes in construction methods and increased use of artificial materials, generated heat levels are absolutely unbelievable because of the additional fire loading, which is much greater than in my days of firefighting. A sprinkler system potentially reduces the heat release rate and the danger of flashover, to which all firefighters are vulnerable when they enter an ignited building. Sprinkler systems also prolong air quality by slowing down the accumulation of smoke—smoke alone can be the killer, not necessarily the fire itself. All that is particularly important given that the compartment of origin is frequently and sadly the locus where fire fatalities are found.
The future lies with investment in research and development so that fire engineering prevails as the first line of defence against fire to save life, with operational firefighting the last resort. There are many examples at home and abroad of sprinkler systems saving lives. In 2011, a building in Dubai became the world’s tallest residential building, and was referred to, oddly enough, as the Torch. It hit the headlines again in 2015 when a fire broke out and took hold on the 50th floor of the 79-floor structure. What an impossible task for the firefighters to deal with—it was quite unbelievable. The safe evacuation of that massive residential structure was down to passive and active measures, including the successful operation of a sprinkler system, which allowed containment of the fire and the safe evacuation of individuals.
Nearer to home, in Wales, the Building Regulations &c. (Amendment No. 3) and Domestic Fire Safety (Wales) Regulations 2013 introduced a requirement to fit automatic fire suppression systems in residences before first occupation. The regulations covered care homes and rooms used for certain residential purposes and dwellings. In Scotland, sprinkler systems are already mandatory in certain circumstances and will be extended to new flats in 2019. That is the welcome result of the work of a Scottish ministerial working group, which was set up after the Grenfell tragedy. Regrettably, England appears to be falling behind its neighbours
Most studies over the years have concluded that sprinklers lead to a much lower or zero death rate, particularly in residential buildings, and I urge the Minister to consider any measures that would reinforce such a reduction and support enhanced life safety. Sprinklers are a natural progressive partner to detection. We have seen the success of smoke detectors. As has been said, it is simply common sense that the natural progression is with sprinklers.
The need for sprinklers is not a whim; it an evidence-based common-sense approach. Let us act now to further reduce the risk of fire deaths and to secure a safer operational environment for our firefighters. Every fire authority has a responsibility and a duty of care for those people and we can make their high-risk job that bit safer. I ask the Minister to act now, in the light of the clear need for sprinklers, to drive that forward, for the safety of individuals and of firefighters, and to secure properties and allow businesses to avoid being badly impacted by the ravages of fire.