MP calls for review of use of sprinkler systems

Peter Aldous uses the Christmas Adjournment Debate to call for a review of the installation of sprinkler systems in buildings.

Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con): I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to the Backbench Business Committee for giving me the opportunity to raise the issue of sprinklers in buildings. I do so because last year a serious fire took place in commercial premises in Lowestoft, in my constituency. Thankfully there were no casualties, but if sprinklers had been installed, the significant impact and upheaval that subsequently affected many people would have been avoided.

Wessex Foods was a large food warehouse and factory located on the south Lowestoft industrial estate, processing raw meat into burgers. On Sunday 14 July 2010, firefighters from the local fire station were called to a fire at the site and arrived in just a few minutes. Unfortunately, the fire had already developed to such a degree that they were unable to go into the building safely. The building was completely destroyed by the fire, which took 10 days to be fully extinguished. At its height, 14 fire engines and 80 firefighters were at the fire, and over the course of the succeeding 10 days almost every firefighter in Suffolk attended the scene.

The impact on the local community was profound. A factory that had been in operation for 30 years has now been permanently closed and razed to the ground, and 150 people have lost their jobs. Despite the size of the building, at approximately 5,000 square metres, and the use to which it was put, sprinklers had not been fitted. If they had been, the outcome would have been completely different and the firefighters would have been back at the fire station within an hour.

There are compelling reasons why the current approach to sprinklers should be reviewed. Where sprinklers are installed, there is a dramatic reduction in fatalities and injuries. There has never been a multiple fire death incident anywhere in the world in a building fitted with a sprinkler system that has been designed to the appropriate standard for the purpose intended.

There is a need to have regard to demographic changes. People are living longer, and older people are particularly vulnerable to the ravages of fire. They may not be able to evacuate a building as quickly as young people. Those who suffer from dementia face added challenges. As a nation we are encouraging older people to continue living in their homes longer. I have no problem with that, but we need to ensure that elderly people, especially those living alone, are provided with an appropriate level of protection.

There has in the past been concern about the reliability and cost of sprinklers. However, in recent years, there have been significant advances in both design and reducing costs. The likelihood of a sprinkler going off accidentally is now estimated to be of the order of 16 million:1.

It is important to have regard to the views and needs of the fire service. Firefighters do a great job, often in hazardous and dangerous circumstances. We owe it to them to reduce risk as far as reasonably possible. With fire service budgets and resources coming under increasing pressure, it is important to focus on measures that make their jobs easier. I am mindful that in rural counties, including Suffolk, we are reliant on a combination of full-time crews and retained crews in market towns. As work patterns change, recruitment of retained firefighters is becoming more difficult. We thus need to ensure that we reduce the risk of major incidents wherever possible. It is also important for Government to listen to local fire chiefs and fire authorities. They are the people on the ground with first-hand experience, who invariably know best, and they advocate more widespread use of sprinklers. In the past year, not only Suffolk but Norfolk, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Staffordshire and Humberside have demanded a more proactive approach.

For commercial and industrial premises, two issues need to be addressed. First, we find ourselves out of step with many other countries. In England, only buildings of more than 20,000 square metres are required to be fitted with sprinklers. In Scotland, that figure is 14,000 square metres, while in Germany it is 1,800 square metres. If we had been in line with the European average, the devastation caused by the Wessex fire would have been avoided. Secondly, there has been too little focus in determining policy up to now on the business disruption that arises from a major fire. In these difficult and uncertain economic times, we can ill afford that. Some 85% of small and medium enterprises that suffer a serious fire never recover or cease trading within 18 months.

It is important that the Government review the new and compelling evidence on sprinklers that is becoming available. This should be taken fully into account in the review of part B of the building regulations due in 2013. It is important that that review takes place on time and is not delayed. The evidence that we need to look at includes feedback from Wales, where the fitting of sprinklers in new residential property has been mandatory since the spring. Next year is the bicentenary of the installation of the first sprinkler system in Britain in the Theatre Royal, Drury lane. Some might say that not much progress has been made in 200 years: I would say that now is the time to redouble our efforts to save lives, to protect the vulnerable and to safeguard jobs.

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Peter holds regular surgeries at various locations in the constituency. Please call 01502 586568 to make an appointment.

Next Surgeries - 2018:
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