Water sprinklers – time to think outside of the box

Published:  27 April, 2012

‘Sprinklers save lives, property, money, jobs, communities, the environment – the evidence is compelling, isn’t it?’ Impressions of a high-level seminar held at the House of Commons, London, by John Maxfield.

A few weeks ago a special meeting was convened in the House of Commons to investigate why a whole host of industry groups were still yet to be convinced by the benefits of sprinklers. These included architects, building control officers, inspectors, housing providers and builders. The event, supported by the Business Sprinkler Alliance and Clark UK, sought to answer this question: ‘Sprinklers save lives, property, money, jobs, communities, the environment – the evidence is compelling, isn’t it?’

Listening to the many expert speakers at the Parliamentary seminar I was struck by the old adage, ‘sell people what they want, not what they need!’

In the morning session the delegates listened to several eminent speakers, each permitted a meagre 10-minutes slot, conveying their support for water sprinklers and how convincing the argument is for their installation.

One speaker made an intriguing point. Dave Curry, the Director for Prevention & Protection at CFOA, stated that research his department had undertaken had highlighted three barriers seemingly standing in the way of the general acceptance of sprinklers. One reason is cost – and the technology that comes with the systems – and the second is regulation and the need for change. Both of these were debated during the day and the barriers lamented, however Dave’s third barrier is the point that intrigued me – ‘the myths and perceptions surrounding sprinklers.’

Drilling down into these myths it is apparent that outside of the industry there is a deep-rooted mistrust of sprinklers on many levels. Dave even quoted an example of how someone’s insurance premiums increased when the insurers were notified that water sprinklers had been installed; the risk of water damage following a false activation being the cause. Naturally this was greeted with derision amongst the delegates – but it is a real barrier and a problem that needs addressing.

After lunch John Viniello, Managing Director of the International Fire Sprinkler Association based in New York, gave an entertaining talk about his organisation’s experiences in breaking down these same barriers. He referred to an inspired initiative whereby the US Federal Government changed their expenses policy so that officers and departmental officials could only claim hotel accommodation if they stayed at a hotel that had had water sprinklers installed. Guess what! Thousands of hotels in Washington DC and beyond had water sprinklers installed.

Prior to that change of policy, these hotels may have needed sprinklers for many reasons, but they didn’t want them and there was no regulation to make them.

The UK Government currently has no appetite for further regulation and therefore it is unlikely that building owners will be forced to install sprinklers. On the 29th of February the sprinkler issue was raised during a Parliamentary debate on water supplies. Here is a transcript, which I picked up from the BAFSA website:

Jim Fitzpatrick: The second issue that I want briefly to mention is fire sprinklers. I pay tribute to the Minister (Frank Dobson), who is always courteous and efficient. I am grateful for the meeting that he afforded me and the officers of the all-party group on fire safety and rescue to discuss the matter only four to five weeks ago. There is a myth perpetrated by the media—mostly in adverts on TV and in the cinema—that when a fire in a building activates the sprinkler system, every sprinkler right across the building is activated and the whole place is doused in water and damaged. The reality, of course, is that the only sprinkler activated is the sprinkler head immediately above the seat of the fire, as the heat generated by the fire melts the soldered link, causing the blockage to fall away and allowing the water to act as an extinguishing agent. The problem with the myth is that people are frightened of sprinklers, because they think that if they install them in their building and they are inadvertently actuated—we know that smoke detectors can go off because of burning toast—their home would be damaged. However, that is not the case, and the cost to society of not installing sprinkler systems in buildings includes the hundreds of millions of pounds lost to schools damaged by fire every year—a cost that is often passed on to local council tax payers, as most local authorities self-insure. 

The recent installation at the Callows Mount residential block in Sheffield proves that a water sprinkler system isn’t necessarily as price-prohibitive as some people think. Certainly the technology is there, despite the myths, and the incidents of property and assets being saved by water sprinklers is mounting, yet still there is a steely resistance to them. It’s time to take a leaf out of the Americans’ book and see if we can ‘think outside the box’ and change peoples’ perceptions about water sprinklers. Discuss…

  • Operation Florian

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