The Haunting Impact of Past Decisions on Fire Safety

The Haunting Impact of Past Decisions on Fire Safety

22 Jan 2024

Business Sprinkler Alliance

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This informal CPD article ‘The Haunting Impact of Past Decisions on Fire Safety’, was provided by Tom Roche, Secretary of the Business Sprinkler Alliance, established in 2010 as an alliance of fire safety professionals working to protect UK plc against fire.

The catastrophic fires that have taken place in recent years have brought attention to the long-term implications of initial design choices when constructing buildings. Events such as the Grenfell Tower tragedy underscore how decisions made today about fire protection can have dire consequences decades later. With an average of 490 fires occurring monthly in commercial and industrial buildings alone, are we making fully informed decisions that deliver the fire safety outcomes we expect?

A major inferno that engulfed the Clean Laundry in Ross-on-Wye in 2022 provides a case in point. Over 60 firefighters battled the blaze using 12 appliances and two aerial ladders but sadly the 2600m2 laundry facility was destroyed in the fire. Thick smoke and ash from the fire spread to the nearby town centre while residents were advised to close windows and doors.

The ‘state-of-the art’ laundry facility was built in 2005 but sadly, the loss of their building caused loss of earnings along with business disruption as the facility had to be rebuilt. In the interim, orders were redistributed to other laundries and staff redeployed at other sites in the wider group.

This massive fire highlights concerning gaps in fire safety measures. Why weren't sprinklers installed when constructing this supposedly state-of-the-art facility in 2005? Fires frequently occur in commercial laundries, whether caused by the ignition of lint build up or the spontaneous combustion caused by laundry that is dried and stacked whilst still hot. These are foreseeable events. A building containing operations with a known history of catastrophic fires due to high fuel loads should have been an obvious priority for sprinkler system installation.

Developers lack incentive beyond minimum requirements

Building labels and risk

When developing or occupying buildings, potential fire hazards may be overlooked. Instead, decision-makers prioritise other areas, relying on bare minimum regulations and vague guidance to address fire risk. We need to question if regulations and their guidance are helping to deliver the fire safety outcomes we are expecting of the buildings of today. Furthermore, the labels we are giving buildings are often misleading – are they a laundry, a factory, a warehouse or retail? Broad labels downplay the unique dangers posed by specific conditions and uses within these buildings.

Frequently, buildings are designed and built for the broadest possible use with our regulatory guidance dictating few requirements. Developers lack the incentive to go beyond the minimum requirements in these buildings. These buildings are constructed as blank shells by developers making fire safety decisions during initial construction. Future owners who occupy the completed building may be unaware of or constrained by those original fire safety choices.

The issue is that to go beyond baseline requirements, building owners must actively specify enhanced fire safety measures. To do that you need to be aware of what is not included in the current guidance. There is a lot of discussion going on about the guidance but what does it say? One thing that has come out of the Grenfell Inquiry is that not everyone understood the guidance and did not understand the risk of fire safety decisions. This lack of clarity surrounding fire safety guidelines extends far beyond the Grenfell tragedy and residential buildings.

Often, assumptions dominate expected outcomes, since fire safety rarely features prominently in conversations between the developer and the person who is eventually going to own the building. It may simply be superficial conversations about cost, services and materials, for example, but not compliance. Ultimately, if you don’t make an active decision and your building is susceptible to fire that’s what you pay for. If you are looking for a different outcome then you have to be involved, you need to be clear and specify it. Why deliver a warehouse or factory and decide to leave out fire safety measures, only to find that five or 10 years later it is completely destroyed due to a fire event? In short, don’t leave it to chance.  Fire safety must be a prominent, ongoing conversation. 

We hope this article was helpful. For more information from Business Sprinkler Alliance (BSA), please visit their CPD Member Directory page. Alternatively, you can go to the CPD Industry Hubs for more articles, courses and events relevant to your Continuing Professional Development requirements.

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For more information from Business Sprinkler Alliance, please visit their CPD Member Directory page. Alternatively please visit the CPD Industry Hubs for more CPD articles, courses and events relevant to your Continuing Professional Development requirements.

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