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What will it take to wake up to this sprinkler fiasco?

RiskSTOP Director Trevor Smith questions whether lessons have been learned from Grenfell…

With the benefit of hindsight! It’s a phrase that by its very definition only ever crops up after an event. Now, over two years on from Grenfell, questions are still being asked about why a residential tower in West London, where 72 people died in a fire, could possibly have been clad in a material which allowed the blaze to spread so rapidly.

However, when you look at the definition of hindsight, you soon realise that it doesn’t apply to this aspect of Grenfell at all. The Cambridge dictionary says hindsight is the ‘ability to understand an event or situation only after it has happened.’ But didn’t we understand before Grenfell that there were severe fire risks associated with certain composite materials? Didn’t we have the benefit of such understanding before the tragedy happened?

What is worrying is that we can now see history repeating itself, in another way. Every month or so the issue of sprinklers crops up somewhere in the news or within industry publications. Whether it’s fuelled by a blog piece from the ABI, a press release from the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) or a debate in the Houses of Parliament, the same question crops up. When will there be mandated use of sprinklers in complex buildings, such as large warehouses, or those housing some of the most vulnerable like schools, high-rise residential properties and care homes?

'Incapable of self-regulation'

Five months ago Inside Housing reported how developers were still “consistently ignoring” the London Fire Brigade’s (LFB) advice that sprinklers were essential in many buildings. An LFB audit of 15 purpose-built blocks of flats, where it had told developers that sprinklers were crucial, found that only two had systems fitted. A spokesman for the Brigade said it was clear that the building industry was incapable of self-regulation on sprinklers. It wants sprinklers fitted in all purpose-built blocks of flats taller than 18 metres.

Current residential building regulations in England only demand sprinklers in new buildings taller than 30 metres. In Wales, sprinklers are mandatory in all new residential buildings, while Scottish regulations require systems in blocks higher than 18 metres as well as care homes and sheltered housing. Sprinklers are also mandatory in new school buildings in Scotland and Wales, but not in England. Under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, developers in England must consult fire services while designing new buildings – but do not have to listen to their advice beyond what is required by building regulations.

Just two months ago 1,000 pupils and staff members were evacuated from Connah's Quay High School in North Wales. The blaze was contained in the room where it started and was extinguished quickly by sprinkler devices. Nobody was hurt and no major damage was caused. According to the FBU, just 15% of new schools being built in England are being fitted with sprinklers.

People sometimes say that if you make a mistake once, then it’s a genuine mistake. But if you make the same mistake again, it’s a choice. Isn’t it time this sprinkler system fiasco was given some urgency, before there’s talk of another ‘benefit of hindsight’?

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