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Copyright International Fire Protection 2016

Regulators across Europe increasingly recognise Sprinklers

In a few weeks Wales will become the first country to require sprinklers in all new housing. This is the most dramatic example of how regulators increasingly recognise the life safety benefits of sprinklers. It is part of a trend, particularly in northern Europe: Norway has required sprinklers in all new apartments since 2010 and by the end of 2014 Finland had retrofitted 70% of homes for the elderly. Meanwhile in Sweden, regulatory fire engineering guidance allows designers to assume a two-thirds reduction in heat release rate if the fire is less than 5 MW when the first sprinkler operates. That has implications for many other fire safety measures.

All countries state that the primary purpose of their codes is to save life but in some it is also to protect property and the environment, or even employment. Over the past decade most countries have introduced requirements to fit sprinklers in new high-rise buildings and new shopping centres. Many also require them in large warehouses and underground car parks, with France the latest to demand sprinklers in underground car parks and Belgium discussing it. Today, when a building fire safety code is revised, new incentives or requirements for sprinklers are often included. As a result, although European construction activity has declined by a quarter since 2008, the sprinkler market has not declined at all.

Change does not happen by itself, at least certainly not when it comes to fire safety regulations. The hundreds of advances made by sprinklers have come about because many people have patiently spent a lot of time making the case to thousands of others. It is a powerful case: statistics gathered by fire and rescue services and insurers in several countries show that sprinklers control or extinguish almost all fires, with a success rate in European studies ranging from 95-98%. Deaths are very rare; the only ones I am aware of occurred when frail people accidentally set fire to their clothing or bedding. More robust individuals have even survived this scenario thanks to a sprinkler system. Sprinklers were originally invented to protect property and insurers confirm that fire losses are reduced by six times in sprinklered buildings.

That is the learning from the field. To understand why sprinklers are so successful and to support design and component standards, some countries have funded independent laboratory research. In Europe they include Finland, Norway, Sweden and the UK, where governments have funded full-scale fire tests which show how sprinklers can save lives in residential settings. Belgium is joining this group. Several governments have funded economic analyses of the benefits of fitting sprinklers in various types of new buildings, while the French, German and Swedish governments have funded tests on water mist and sprinklers in tunnels. A great deal has also been spent by manufacturers, insurers and major end users in many countries on fire testing of sprinkler and water mist systems to protect risks not addressed by the various standards. All of this effort has greatly increased understanding and acceptance of the potential of these systems, confirming our arguments and helping us find allies to support regulatory changes.

Fire engineering is becoming increasingly accepted throughout Europe, with the new Italian building fire safety code the latest to recognise it. Here lies another opportunity for sprinklers. Most codes set out maximum compartment sizes, minimum fire resistance times and maximum travel distances. Sprinkler systems are designed to control a fire. Structures are then not exposed to significant heat and will not weaken. Similarly a smaller fire, or an extinguished fire, produces less smoke so escape routes stay usable for longer. Firefighters need less water and fewer resources to deal with a smaller fire.

They can also work more safely. Fire engineers often make use of these benefits in their designs and in some countries the fire safety codes offer relaxations in certain fire safety measures if sprinklers are fitted. Fire compartment area limits may be doubled (or unlimited); travel distances to escape stairs may be longer and minimum fire resistance periods may
be reduced by 30 minutes or more. Buildings can be more open and lighter. Moreover if a staircase can be saved they become more valuable. Construction is expensive and regulators are being encouraged to reduce the regulatory burden. Sprinklers can play a part.

If you would like to learn more about these topics I invite you to come to Munich for Fire Sprinkler International 2016. On 19-20 April the European Fire Sprinkler Network and Bundesverband Technischer Brandschutz will jointly host this bilingual conference and exhibition dedicated to water-based extinguishing systems. Over 300 delegates from across the world will attend two days of high-level presentations on the latest technical advances in sprinkler, water mist and foam systems. 50 scientists, insurers, officials and other top speakers will also update delegates on developments in codes and standards and the research underpinning them. In between delegates can visit the large exhibition and of course enjoy Munich in the spring!

For more details see www.firesprinklerinternational.com

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Alan Brinson is Executive Director of the European Fire Sprinkler Network

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