Effective ?re prevention is an essential component of any successful business

Iain Cox
Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Last month more than 70 fire fighters battled a massive blaze at the Amcor Flexibles print and packaging factory in Livingston. Toxic fumes from burning chemicals meant local residents near Brucefield Industrial Park had to stay inside and keep doors and windows closed.

Neighbouring businesses on the estate were also evacuated by fire fighters and the billowing clouds of black smoke closed the Edinburgh to Glasgow rail line at a time when the Pope was making his visit to Scotland.

Fires in industrial buildings such as these cause huge disruption to businesses, pose a risk to life and a grave threat to the environment, especially where the contents of the building are toxic, which also impedes fire fighting. But worse still, such fires and the devastation they cause are wholly preventable and can be avoided.  

If this factory had been fitted with a functioning sprinkler system it would never have made the news. The fire would have been immediately doused with minimum damage to the building, the business, the local community and the environment.

Fast and effective
Fire sprinklers are the most effective fire prevention systems available and have a 98% success rate in service worldwide. They are the quickest defence against fire and the most reliable active fire suppression method available, delivering water immediately to the fire, thereby extinguishing it and most importantly, preventing it from spreading.

However, at present less than 1% of commercial and industrial premises in England and Wales are covered by government regulations making fire sprinkler installation mandatory. Under current building regulations only new commercial buildings (NCBs), major refurbishments and retrofits to existing structures that are 14,000sqm or above in Scotland, and 20,000sqm or above in England and Wales, have to be fitted with sprinklers.

To put that into context, in major European countries fire sprinklers must be installed in commercial and industrial premises with an average floor space one-tenth that of those regulated in the UK.

Industrial and commercial fires in the UK are on the rise. It has been estimated that by 2020, UK PLC could stand to lose as much as £10bn to such preventable fires, and according to recent data from the Association of British Insurers (ABI), losses from commercial and industrial property fires reached a record £865m in 2008. This represents a 15% increase on 2007. Estimates of job losses in the UK as a result of commercial and industrial fires have also run into the thousands over the past decade.

This is only a fraction of what the true cost of commercial fires is, because the true cost needs to be measured in terms of their full societal impact and not just costs to business and business interruption. We should also factor in the threat to lives, cost to the community the business serves and also the cost to the wider economy and environment.

According to research by commercial property insurer FM Global and the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition, when automatic fire sprinklers are installed, greenhouse gases released by burning buildings can be reduced by 98% and the amount of water used to fight a home fire is reduced by upwards of 90%. According to tests conducted by Michelin et al (2005), the release of hazardous materials is reduced by 98% when fire sprinklers have been installed and the release of soot is reduced by 99.99%.

The goal of the Business Sprinkler Alliance (BSA), a newly formed coalition working to achieve greater business resilience, is to prevent such major costs and losses in the UK. The BSA is working to encourage all stakeholders to acknowledge the real benefits to UK plc of enhanced fire protection through the installation of sprinklers.

Fire sprinklers need to be recognised as a core component of a successful economy, sustainable society and sustainable environment. They protect businesses, protect jobs and local communities and protect the environment.

Iain Cox is chief fire officer, Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service, and chairperson of the Business Sprinkler Alliance

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