Judy Terry is a marketing professional who stood down as a councillor in May 2014.
In 2002, Yarls Wood detention centre was burned down following a riot within just weeks of opening, and last year the Glasgow School of Art, an iconic Charles Rennie Mackintosh building, was destroyed by fire, when an illegal substance was allegedly used in an arts project.
Wessex Foods in Lowestoft was completely destroyed by fire in 2010. Although the fire service was on site within minutes, the building was already fully alight and it took ten days to be fully extinguished. It wasn’t just the building, but also the business which was destroyed, with the loss of 150 jobs having a serious impact on the local economy when the owner decided to consolidate production at other sites rather than rebuild.
A year later, the Sony Distribution Centre in Enfield, suffered an arson attack, destroying £30 million worth of stock which, in turn impacted on 200 music and film companies.
Fourteen vulnerable older people died in a night time fire in a Scottish care home, built to the highest modern standards, in 2004.
None had sprinklers. The Home Office had ignored specialist advice to install them at Yarls Wood but, being “self-insured”, it was rebuilt at a cost of £40 million to the public purse (this time with sprinklers, according to a report on Bedford Today). And a £20 million appeal was recently launched to fund the art school’s reconstruction, although some of the losses – books and art – can never be replaced.
Every day, there are fires across the country, in all sorts of buildings, whether residential, commercial, industrial or educational (with thatched cottages especially vulnerable). The social, environmental and economic consequences are incalculable – with disruption to whole communities, and loss of life.
A director of a mainstream insurer recently told me that some new high rise blocks are, effectively, “uninsurable” without sprinklers because fighting fires hundreds of feet off the ground is so challenging.
Whilst smoke detectors save hundreds of lives a year, automatic fire sprinkler systems would have an even greater impact, especially amongst the most vulnerable in our society, including the very young or old, disabled or those with drug or alcohol problems. For those of us who like statistics, international research states that 80 per cent of all fire deaths occur in the home, and in the US where sprinklers are more widely installed, fires in 98 per cent of dwellings with sprinklers are extinguished/controlled by a single sprinkler, thereby limiting any toxic smoke.
The first priority for us should be safety in the home, including HMOs and, of course, care homes. For example, in 2010/11, Suffolk’s Fire & Rescue Service attended 443 fires in private homes, with 5 people dying and 43 suffering serious injuries.
So why aren’t automatic fire sprinklers mandatory in all new build housing projects? The Scottish government introduced legislation for residential use in 2003, and Wales followed a few years later, but England remains silent on the subject, despite a growing national debate.
Misinformation has clouded that debate. For example, automatic fire sprinklers only operate when a fire is present and there are no moving parts to fail; they are not unsightly or obtrusive, being fully recessed, with pipework concealed; costs are not prohibitive, averaging around £1000 for lifetime protection in a new build house. They are not triggered by a smoke alarm, and the chance of accidental discharge of water is 1 in 14,000,000. Sprinklers can also be retrofitted, for example in conversions (offices to residential) and use 10,000 times less water than firefighters would use in the event of a fire.
So let’s get on with it, by making sprinklers a condition of all new developments as part of the planning process. This should include HMOs, all educational establishments, hotels, restaurants, pubs, retail complexes, train stations and other places where members of the public are regular visitors but aren’t trained up for emergency evacuation.
Because deaths are rare in commercial/industrial properties, at present only warehouse style buildings larger than 20,000 square metres have to install sprinklers, compared with 2,300 square metres in the EU’s main economies, leaving the UK suffering higher losses estimated to equate to as much as £10 billion by 2020.
This is a case where size does matter, so bring that requirement into line with Europe. Sprinklers should also be enforced in other commercial operations (offices, factories) with a retrofit programme becoming statutory over time, or if refurbishment is implemented.
Councils can make this happen, saving lives (including firefighters’ lives), money, water and the environment. All it takes is commitment from the leadership.