Fire Sprinklers Week

Speaking in a Parliamentary debate in the first ever fire sprinkler week Peter Aldous backs calls for more widespread use of sprinklers and debunks some of the popular myths. He highlights the impact on the local community of the fire at Wessex Foods which resulted in the permanent closure of the factory with the loss of 150 jobs. 
 
Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate and congratulate the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) on securing it and on his work both in raising the awareness of the needs of the fire service generally and in campaigning specifically for an increased use of sprinklers.
 
This debate is taking place in the first ever fire sprinkler week. The simple message important to get across is that controlling a fire when it starts is better than repairing the damage that occurs if it is allowed to spread. It is important to pay tribute to our firefighters, who do such a great job in hazardous and dangerous circumstances. We owe it to them to reduce the risks associated with the work that they do in the communities they serve. With fire authority budgets and resources coming under increasing pressure, it is important to focus on preventing and restricting fires, and making firefighters’ jobs safer and easier. Fire chiefs and fire authorities up and down the country, including those in Suffolk, strongly advocate more widespread use of sprinklers. They are the people with first-hand knowledge and experience, and it is important that the Government listen carefully to their views.
 
Wessex Foods, on the south Lowestoft industrial estate in my constituency, was a large food factory that processed raw meat into burgers. On 14 July 2010, firefighters from Lowestoft fire station were called to a fire at the factory and arrived in just a few minutes. Unfortunately, the fire had already developed to such a degree that they were unable to enter the building safely to tackle the blaze. The building was completely destroyed by the fire, which took a total of 10 days to be extinguished fully. At its height, 14 fire engines and 80 firefighters were on site, and over the time it took to put out the fire, almost every firefighter in Suffolk attended the scene.
 
The impact on the local community was far-reaching. A factory that had been in operation for 30 years was closed permanently with the loss of 150 jobs, and there was a significant knock-on impact on the local economy. Other consequences included local road disruptions, evacuation of some nearby residents, environmental impacts, problems with pest control and odour due to rotting meat and the impact of using 50 million litres of water to tackle the fire.
 
Despite its size and use, the Wessex Foods building was not fitted with sprinklers. Had it been, the outcome would have been completely different. The fire would have started in much the same way, but a short time later the sprinkler head closest to the fire would have operated and suppressed or extinguished the flame. At the same time, the operation of the sprinkler would have set off the fire alarm and led to a call to the fire service. Firefighters would have arrived at the scene within a few minutes, and would have entered the building either to extinguish the small fire fully or to confirm that it had been extinguished by the sprinklers. They would have been back at their fire station within an hour. The fire at Wessex Foods is just one of many examples that reinforce the case for sprinklers to be fitted more widely.
 
Over the years, many myths have grown up about sprinklers, and it is important to dispel them. Myth No. 1 is that sprinklers are always going off accidentally. That is untrue. There is a one in 500,000 chance of accidental operation through damage, and the chance of accidental discharge of water due to manufacturing defects is one in 14 million. Myth No. 2 is that sprinklers operate when a smoke detector goes off—again, that is untrue. Sprinklers are not triggered by smoke; they operate as a result of high temperatures that can be produced only by a genuine fire. Myth No. 3, that all sprinkler heads operate together, is untrue. Most fires cause only one sprinkler head to operate. If more than one operates, that is due to the size of the fire and the need for more heads to operate to suppress and control it.
 
Myth No. 4 is that sprinkler systems use more water than firefighters. Once more, that is untrue. A fire in a building protected by a sprinkler system will be extinguished at an earlier stage due to the automatic operation of the sprinklers, which will suppress and control the fire; in some cases, the fire may even be extinguished before the firefighters arrive. A single sprinkler head uses approximately 60 litres of water per minute, whereas fires that develop and require the fire service to respond will often result in 10,000 times more water being used.
 
Myth No. 5, that sprinklers cause more damage than the fire, is also untrue. Not only is less water used, but the early operation of an automatic fire sprinkler system dramatically reduces fire, heat and smoke damage. Myth No. 6 is that once a sprinkler system has operated, the occupants of the home or business will need to leave for an extended period for repairs to take place. Again, that is untrue. A building protected by sprinklers will likely be returned to normal use far sooner, because the fire will be smaller and less water will be used to extinguish it; businesses are often up and running the following day.
 
Myth No. 7 is that sprinklers are unsightly. Again, that is untrue. Modern domestic and non-industrial sprinkler heads are fitted so that only a small disc is visible on the ceiling, and plastic pipe work is concealed in ceiling voids. Myth No. 8, that sprinklers are expensive, is untrue. A full British standard-compliant system can be supplied and installed in a new home for between 1% and 2% of the cost of the building; that is less than the cost of fitting carpets.
 
Myth No. 9 is that sprinklers cannot be retrofitted. That is untrue. Modern sprinkler systems can be cost-effectively retrofitted, and that has happened many times. Myth No. 10, that they are difficult and expensive to maintain, is untrue. They are relatively simple automatic systems, and have few moving parts. They require little maintenance. Finally—I am grateful to hon. Members for bearing with me—I come to myth No. 11. [Interruption.] There is a whole football or cricket team of myths. It is untrue that sprinkler systems are often subject to vandalism. Far more damage is caused by starting a fire or by flooding a building through leaving taps running and drains blocked.
 
I should add that there has never been a multiple fire death incident anywhere in the world in a building fitted with a sprinkler system designed to the appropriate standard for the intended purpose. The likelihood of a sprinkler going off accidentally is estimated to be about 16 million to 1, and 85% of small and medium-sized businesses that suffer a serious fire either never recover or cease trading within 18 months. The case for sprinklers is compelling.
 
Perhaps the myths that have grown up about fire sprinklers can be attributed to Hollywood. Sprinklers all going off at once, and dramatic fires, make good box office. “Die Hard” is the movie that gives the worst false impressions. Surprise, surprise—it grossed more than $140 million while “Backdraft” grossed more than $152 million. Yes, the characters played by Kurt Russell and William Baldwin in the latter film were real heroes, but we need a system that would remove the need to send such men into dangerous buildings.
 
The main benefit of sprinklers is that they are the most effective way to get further reductions in fire deaths. Research shows that 80% of fire deaths happen in the home, and that an automatic fire sprinkler system in the home, along with fire detection, reduces the risk of death or serious injury by more than 80%. Other benefits include protecting buildings—fire suppression by sprinklers reduces fire, heat and smoke damage; improving the safety of firefighters, through the containment, suppression and, often, extinguishing of a fire, without the need for them to go into the building; and an increased chance of keeping a business in production after a fire has started.
 
Sprinklers can also give flexibility to developers, architects and builders, by making it possible to comply with building regulations in a cost-effective way, and they reduce the environmental impact of fire; if there is less heat and smoke, less water will be used to extinguish a fire, and there will be less potential for contaminated water run-off to get into a water course.
 
Mr Nick Raynsford (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab): I am very sympathetic to the case that the hon. Gentleman makes, but will he reflect on why, given all the benefits of sprinklers—reducing unnecessary fires and costs, and saving lives—businesses are so reluctant to install them without being required to do so by regulation? What does that tell us about the importance of a regulatory regime to back up the common-sense case we all accept for extending their use?
 
Peter Aldous: The right hon. Gentleman is of course right; often people think only about the start-up costs. They do not think about the overall picture of the cost if there should be a fire. There is a need for education and for some regulatory change.
 
If sprinklers are fitted, a business will usually be fully functioning again within hours of a fire starting, and a sequence of undesirable events will be prevented: business closure, with the consequent loss of jobs, and the knock-on impact to the firm’s supply chain and local businesses. Other businesses are often affected when there is a fire—surrounding businesses must stop work during a major fire, and businesses that supply the affected company or rely on its goods for their operation may temporarily or permanently lose custom or supply, which can put their future at risk.
 
Nearly all fires in industrial or commercial buildings cause disruption to the transport system, nearby roads, footpaths and cycleways. They may also lead to residential evacuations and school closures. They also waste water. Fire and rescue services use more than 9 billion litres of water a year—the equivalent to five times the UK’s bottled water usage—to put out fires in industrial and commercial buildings.
 
To coincide with the debate, the Business Sprinkler Alliance has commissioned two important items of research, to assess the impact of fires in warehouse buildings. I will not go through them in detail, because the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse has already done so, but the Centre for Economics and Business Research and BRE research have carried out compelling research.
 
The main focus of the first fire sprinkler week is on industrial buildings and warehouses, but I want to comment on care homes and homes for the elderly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) did. We need to keep demographic change in mind. People live longer, and older people are particularly vulnerable to the ravages of fire. They cannot get out of buildings as quickly as young people, and those who suffer from dementia face added challenges. The nation is encouraging older people to continue living in their own homes, and that is right; but we need to ensure that elderly people, and especially those who live alone, have appropriate support and protection.
 
We should keep in mind the devastating fire earlier in the year at the Résidence du Havre care home at L’Isle-Verte in Quebec, where at least 35 people lost their lives. In 2011, as we have heard, 11 people were murdered when a fire was started deliberately at the Quakers Hill nursing home in Sydney in New South Wales. The New South Wales Government subsequently stated that their objective is for all care homes for the elderly to be fitted with sprinklers by March 2016. I fear that often we change the law reactively, responding to such tragic events rather than being proactive and preventing them in the first place. We must take that into account and become proactive.
 
Last year, Suffolk county council, in what was in many respects a controversial decision, transferred the running of its care homes to a private sector operator. Part of the agreement was that the new care homes that are to be built must include fire sprinklers. The county council is to be commended for insisting on that, and I urge other councils and care operators to do likewise.
 
What do we want to come out of the debate, and what do we want the Minister to say and the Government to think about? As we have heard, there are three requests. First, the Government should generate a dialogue with the business community, to promote increased acceptance of wider sprinkler use. Secondly, fire sprinklers should be removed from the classification of plant and machinery fixtures for rating purposes. I understand that including them generates very little revenue, and it creates a disincentive to protect commercial building stock, the environment and society from fire.
 
Finally, building regulations should be reviewed, with respect to the size above which sprinklers must be fitted in warehouses. The present threshold in England is 20,000 square metres. In the Netherlands it is 1,000 square metres; in Germany it is 1,200 square metres; and in France it is 3,000 square metres. Insured business losses in those competing countries are far lower than they are in the UK, where they were £865 million in 2008. In Germany in the same year, the figure in relation to damage as a result of fire was less than half that, at £400 million.
 
Sprinklers can bring significant benefits in preventing death and personal tragedy, providing firefighters with the protection that they deserve, making the economy more resilient, and preventing unnecessary damage to the environment. We need to promote their wider use in the context of protecting and making better use of resources that are becoming scarcer and more expensive to replace. The television presenter Nick Ross, a champion of fire sprinklers, has commented that each new fire regulation is prompted by a tragedy such as the King’s Cross fire.
 
We must move away from a reactive approach to a proactive and preventive one. Just over 200 years ago, in 1813, the first fire sprinkler system was installed in the Theatre Royal, Drury lane. We have not made sufficient progress in the last two centuries in promoting their wider use. Now is the time to redouble our efforts, to save lives, protect the vulnerable and safeguard jobs.
 
3.30 pm
 

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