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While sprinklers have been used for the protection of property such as mills, factories, warehouses and department stores for more than 140 years there is now a growing recognition of their effectiveness in improving levels of life safety in other types of buildings. The 2006 versions of Approved Document B of the Building Regulations (in England and Wales) and the Technical Handbooks of Scottish Building Standards both incorporate clear recognition of the value of sprinklers in improving levels of safety for occupants as well as in preventing the spread of fire. Other developments have demonstrated the value of sprinklers in providing additional levels of safety for fire fighters in large, complex structures or in buildings where the fire load is excessive. With the incorporation of the latest fast-response sprinkler heads there is clear evidence that, even in the compartment of origin of a fire, occupants of sprinklered buildings enjoy a significant additional measure of life safety.
There also appears to be a growing consensus that sprinklers offer a highly cost-effective way of reducing the UK's appalling fire death toll. It seems generally acknowledged that, while fire detection systems and smoke alarms probably save around 80 - 100 lives each year, this figure is unlikely to improve. It is also clear that when its is the most vulnerable members of our society who die - the very young, the very old, the disabled, the infirm and those who use drugs and alcohol unwisely - only sprinklers can actually prevent fire deaths.
In the case of social housing, residential care premises, homes in multiple occupation, hostels and similar properties there now clear arguments that sprinklers offer the best chance of preventing deaths should a fire occur.
The Welsh Assembly have acted to prevent these needless tragedies and in legislation which received the Royal Assent in April 2011, regulations will be introduced, in 2013 which will require, which will require sprinklers in new and refurbished care homes, hostels and homes in multiple occupation from April 2014 and in all new dwellings from January 2016.
In the UK each year there are around 45,000 fires in dwellings and while many of these involve damage which is little more serious than the need to repaint the kitchen, it must be remembered that while fire deaths in the home have been declining (to 388 in 2010/11), on average around 500 people have died in fires in the UK every year since 1945.
The introduction of smoke alarms in the late 1970s has, it is true, helped to reduce some of this appalling death toll but even the best estimates suggest that only around 30 lives are saved by such early warning devices. Recent statistic show also that even where smoke alarms were working, sadly, people still die in fires. In 2010/11, statistics show that 78 people died in fires in homes with a working smoke alarm. More 38% of battery-operated smoke alarms are not working at the time of a fire and almost a fifth of mains-operated alarms were not operational. (CLG Fire Statistics UK, 2010/11).
It is only when one examines the details of these tragic fires that one can begin to understand why it is that only active systems like sprinklers can prevent domestic tragedies. A disproportionate number of the very young, the very old, disabled people and - it has to be said, those affected by drugs and alcohol - are the people whose deaths feature in this grim annual tally.
One other group also features in the list of the most vulnerable and that is those who live in shared accommodation - sometimes known as 'homes in multiple occupation' or HMO's. One calculation suggests that someone living in an HMO is six or seven times more likely to die in a fire than someone living in a single family dwelling. Some local authorities are now encouraging the landlords who let rooms in HMO's which are three or more storeys in height to fit sprinklers. In Scotland, legislation introduced in 2005 now requires all new care and residential homes to be fitted with sprinkler protection and in some areas, sheltered housing is also being so protected.
So, unlike smoke detectors which can only warn of the need for evacuation, sprinklers can actually save those who are unable to help themselves.
One of the most often ignored benefits of sprinklers is the additional flexibility which this equipment provide to designers and builders. In unconventional or unusual buildings including sprinklers in a specification will often enable Building Regulations compliance to be achieved in a very cost- effective manner. Where changes of use are being anticipated, utilising sprinklers is often the only way in which means of escape requirements can be provided. In other situations, the freedom architects seek to implement a stylish or unorthodox design can only be accomplished using sprinklers.
Sprinklers have also been used as a compensating feature in developments where the Building Regulations cannot be complied with in respect of means of escape or access for the fire brigade. Some projects have even reported that providing sprinklers has resulted in a cost saving where the building authority has permitted trade-offs in respect of means of escape facilities.
Sprinklers are also ideal for protecting buildings constructed from non-traditional materials such as those constructed wholly or largely from timber or using recycled materials. Where a truly green or carbon neutral building is demanded, a sprinkler system will ensure that no fire will destroy that building.
One of the more enduring myths about sprinklers is that they are expensive and difficult to fit into existing buildings and thus it is rarely practical to fit them after initial construction. In order to determine the truth - or otherwise - of these assertions, in September 2011, BAFSA funded a pilot project to install sprinklers in a Sheffield tower block. This project proved conclusively that it is possible and cost-effective to retrofit sprinklers into an existing high-rise block without first having to relocate the tenants.
A full report on the project, Safer High Rise Living: The Callow Mount Retrofit Project is available from BAFSA but its conclusions are easily summarised:
Sprinklers in residential and domestic occupancies should be installed in compliance with BS 9251:2005 Sprinkler systems for residential and domestic occupancies. Code of practice. (For more information on the application of BS 9251, refer to BAFSA Technical Guidance Document No 1). Note that BS 9251 will be subject a major review in 2012/13. Where this standard is not appropriate, sprinklers should be designed and installed in accordance with BS EN 12845 2004 Fixed fire fighting systems. Automatic sprinkler systems. Design, installation and maintenance.
British Standard 9991: 2011, Code of practice for fire safety in the design, management and use of residential buildings, was published in December 2011. It offers guidance on fire protection measures to those designing or refurbishing buildings and is largely based on fire safety engineering principles. It provides a risk-based approach to specifying fire safety precautions in the design of:
This standard complements BS 9999: 2008, Code of practice for fire safety in the design, management and use of buildings and, taken together, in England and Wales the standards usefully provide alternatives to the technical solutions proposed in Approved Document B to the Building Regulations. They offer a middle ground in terms of flexibility, since they sit between the general approach proposed by Approved Document B (and the Scottish Technical Handbooks) and the fully engineered approach of BS PD 7974: 2001, Application of fire safety engineering principles in the design of buildings. Code of practice.
BS 9991 can be used when assessing refurbishment work or general alterations, even if fundamental change in line with its guidelines might well be limited or not practicable. The standard permits variations where additional fire protection measures are provided. Where these additional measures are installed Ð and that may include sprinklers Ð then the level of risk can be reduced.
While there are a range of different types of sprinkler systems used in a range of premises it is considered that only wet systems should be specified in domestic premises. These systems are the simplest, easiest to maintain and are also the most cost-effective. Pipework can be in copper, steel or in CPVC (chlorinated polyvinyl chloride) which is approved for the purpose. Depending on adequacy of water pressure and flow it is sometimes possible for the sprinkler system to be connected (subject the approval of the water authority) directly to the cold water main where it enters the dwelling. Where tanks and pumps are necessary because the flow or pressure is inadequate these can be sourced from a range of companies who manufacture approved and certificated equipment.
While there is nothing mysterious about sprinkler systems the high reliability and effectiveness of these systems has come about over the years by strict adherence to the sprinkler rules and design standards. It would be wise to select a contractor who is not only capable and competent but who also has an established track record and who can offer proof of compliance with an established quality assurance system.
For example, all Installer members of the British Automatic Fire Sprinkler Association can provide documentary proof of compliance with international quality assurance standards and all also hold an approval (Registration or Certification) from a third-party certification service which itself is accredited by a Government-approved body, the United Kingdom Accreditation Service (UKAS).
Most BAFSA Installer members have been in business for more than ten years and some for more than thirty and all can provide objective proof of their competence. BAFSA itself was founded in 1974.
Finally a few facts: