Fire regulations are designed with life safety in mind and not property protection. People need to understand this and also realise that in the event of a fire, the fire and rescue service will have to focus on getting everyone out of the building, not saving the building. This feature looks at the wide-ranging impact of fire and asks the question as to why we are building large unsprinklered buildings.
The impact and devastation caused by fire continues to remind us how vulnerable so many buildings are, with far-reaching consequences. In June 2021, we witnessed 100 firefighters tackle a large blaze at a food distribution warehouse in Bexley south-east London. The warehouse was housed in a building covering an area of 1,900m2. The fire and rescue service prevented the fire from spreading to other buildings, but sadly the food business was devastated by the fire, impacting customers in its supply chain.
In contrast, when fire broke out at the A.F Blakemore and Son food distribution warehouse in nearby Hastings in October 2020, there was a very different outcome. A small fire located in a fan unit had been quickly extinguished by the sprinkler system in the 9,000m2 warehouse. Had the fire not been contained it could well have caused significant damage to this logistics business, which supplies food products to a network of stores across south-east England. In both cases, the warehouses were below 20,000m2, which under current English guidance meant they were not guided to have sprinklers. The unsprinklered warehouse one tenth of this limit was destroyed despite the efforts of 100 firefighters.
Under current building regulation guidance, the businesses that suffered the devastating fires were below any guidance threshold for sprinklers. Yet so was the one that was saved by the sprinklers. The impact on the devastated businesses and their employees and communities in which they operate will be significant.
It is clear from a life-safety perspective there are fewer deaths or injuries because of fires in industrial and commercial buildings in this country than in residential properties. Whether that is a direct consequence of the FSBR alone is debatable. What is clear is that the casualty level is not zero and the outcome of the fire is a ‘success’ if occupants evacuate even if the building is badly damaged or destroyed.
But the FSBR makes no consideration of the scale of the fire or the protection of property – i.e. a building’s ability to withstand a fire. There are on average 490 fires per month in England that damage industrial and commercial buildings.
The problem in focusing on the ease of exit alone and changing how we construct them has made them in effect more vulnerable to fire. The building will survive for the period it takes to get people out, after which we transition into a period where the inherent resilience diminishes. There is a twisted logic that says the building is disposable in a large fire event.
There is much to be said about business continuity in the event of a major disruption such as fire, but this needs to be part of a wider risk management strategy. Judging by the many fires across the commercial sector, there is a disconnect between the business continuity plan and the building. If one of the big risks is the fact you might lose a factory that is critical to your whole operation to a fire – and you have not considered how to protect it – then your disaster recovery will mean you will have to find new premises, machinery and logistics in order to recover. A more successful strategy would be to protect the very critical elements of its operation that are vulnerable in the first place with systems like sprinklers. It is clear that resilience has been assumed to be covered by the particular goal of compliance with regulations, but unfortunately key stakeholders cannot see that this is not always the case.
It is not just commercial buildings
The misunderstood nature of the regulations is also evident when you look at fire in a residential development. A review into a fire that engulfed a six-storey block of flats in Barking in June 2019, found that the fire was fuelled by the building’s external timber balconies even though they are reported to have complied with regulations at the time. Thankfully there were no fatalities at the Samuel Garside House, but the fire had a huge impact on the residents. Eight flats had to be rebuilt and a further 39 could not be occupied until repairs were completed. In the immediate aftermath of the fire, many residents found themselves homeless.
A fire seven months ago in a newly completed low-rise block of apartments in Arborfield near Reading had the same impact. The fire at Hayloft House in April 2021 reached the roof of the block of flats and spread across the building. There were again no fatalities, but a fire in a new building has led to 19 families being left without their possessions or homes – an event that the occupiers would not have expected in such a new build and certainly not in a building claiming to have a stay-put policy.
Like the occupier of the Arborfield flats we expect that buildings will be safe, but beyond that I am not sure we set such demands on buildings in terms of their performance in the face of fires and floods. That is often assumed as a basic need and not an expression of interest. We think we have this now – but recent evidence is that the unintended consequences is that some buildings have fire-safety challenges. The building owners are facing remediation to buildings that will address fire safety. That will not make the building more resilient but this is to meet the minimum outcomes required by regulation.
Difference between resilience and sustainability
Given this approach one would also question its sustainability with our increased attention and desire conserve energy and resources to transition to a greener economy. Regulations and green rating systems may well recognise a high-performance building, but you only have to look at the devastating consequences of a fire to realise that a building’s sustainability does not account for its immunity to fire.
This was the case in 2018 when a fire completely destroyed a newly opened Gardman garden products distribution warehouse in Daventry. The building achieved a ‘Very Good’ BREEAM rating for its energy efficiency. Sadly, this was not matched in terms of resilience as the building lacked active protection like sprinklers. The fire had far-reaching consequences, with the building yet to be rebuilt and the eventual sale of the Gardman garden supplies business.
When we measure a building’s performance, we should be measuring the performance across the board. Sustainability is one very important element, but sustainability must include durability. There is much talk about sustainability, but we don’t talk about interruptions such as damage to a building caused by floods, storms or fire. A building’s sustainability or green rating is focused on such items as energy performance, material selection, limiting waste and pollution, but those environmental credits are instantly lost when a building burns to the ground. Future views on conserving resources should also look at the building materials themselves and how they are used over time. To be truly sustainable buildings should be resilient to fire, with fire sprinkler systems proven to be most effective means of fire protection.
Four years on from Grenfell, the industry is talking about raising the bar in terms of standards and competence to meet current needs in terms of fire safety. Perhaps we should be raising the bar to ask what is the outcome we wish to see? The only way to do this is to think hard about the outcome we see in fire. If we do not try and change the outcome, regulatory success will continue to look like the examples that we have seen.
For more information, go to www.business-sprinkler-alliance.org