UK Politics

Why don't homes have sprinkler systems?

Firefighters

Fire sprinkler systems are a common sight in offices, shops and schools. But with 75% of fire-related deaths in houses and flats why don't our homes have them fitted?

Derbyshire fire chief Sean Frayne has been campaigning for domestic sprinklers to be fitted into all new homes since January 2011, following a house fire in which four young children died.

He believes that the measure could significantly reduce the number of similar tragedies, including the deaths in 2012 of the six Philpott children in a fire at their Derby home started deliberately by their father.

"I am convinced that the benefit of domestic sprinkler systems is still not fully realised. When it is, similar incidents in the future, irrespective of how a fire is started, will have a far different outcome," Mr Frayne said.

He has been running the "Think Sprinkler" campaign, which aims to increase the number of houses in Derbyshire fitted with sprinklers.

It involves using Fire Service funds, matched by money from Derbyshire local authorities, to fit sprinkler systems in people's homes.

This can cost around £2,800 per home, although costs vary greatly depending on the type of building they are being fitted to.

"Think Sprinkler" has also been lobbying for a change in the law to make sprinklers compulsory in new houses.

At the moment high rise blocks and large commercial buildings are legally required to have sprinklers fitted.

Most public buildings have them fitted but domestic dwellings generally do not have them, although they have been compulsory in new build houses in Wales since April 2011.

Ronnie King, former fire chief of Mid and West Wales, is campaigning for all UK homes to be fitted with them.

"A single fire death in a sprinklered building is an extremely rare occurrence anywhere in the world, where the sprinkler is appropriately designed, fully operational and maintained. A multiple death is almost unheard of.

"However government in England is reluctant to add any further burden of regulation to those responsible for building homes.

"Recent incidents of multiple death fires in Harlow, Neasden, Derby, Ashbourne, North Wales, Humberside and Lakanal House, where 36 people have lost their lives (thirty one of these children) have re-focused attention on this alarming situation."

Steve Mills served in the West Midlands Fire Service for 27 years. He is now Secretary of the National Fire Sprinkler Network, an organisation which brings together representatives from fire brigades, politicians and the fire sprinkler industry to lobby for more mandatory sprinklers.

He said that the combination of an ageing population and fire service cuts meant that "the installation of sprinklers is perhaps the single most effective measure in protecting occupants of dwellings from fire".

He also criticised the government's cost benefit analysis of the benefits of fitting fire sprinklers in homes as being "out of date".

"Not cost effective"

A Department for Communities and Local Government spokesman said: "Research and a review of this issue in 2005 concluded that it would not be cost-effective to provide sprinklers in new homes, but that it would be reasonable to provide them in blocks of flats over 30 metres in height and in certain types of care homes.

Image caption The cost of sprinklers has to be balanced against the cost of the fire service

"The outcome of the research resulted in building regulations being amended to require sprinklers in tall blocks of flats, certain types of care homes and large warehouses."

The Chief Fire Officers' Association commissioned its own study into the issue, which was conducted by BRE, the same firm which conducts the government's research.

This report found that sprinklers were cost effective for all residential care homes for elderly people, children and disabled people (including those with single bedrooms), most blocks of purpose built flats and larger blocks of converted flats, and traditional bedsit type accommodation where there are at least six bedsit units per building and the costs are shared.

Calculations of the costs and benefits of using fire sprinklers are dependent on putting a monetary value on human deaths and injuries.

These values vary from country to country. Assigning a higher monetary value to deaths and injuries would mean that measures to prevent them would become more cost effective in the analysis.

As a comparison, the US Department of Transportation recommends a value of around £4 million be attached to a life, compared with the £1.84 million recommended by the UK Treasury.

Calculations of the costs and benefits of installing sprinklers have to take account not only the cost of the systems, and the likely savings they make in terms of lives and property, but also the additional fire-fighting resources which will be required if the sprinklers are not there, as well as the demographics of the population involved.

The last government conducted a study into the potential costs and benefits of fitting sprinklers in new houses as part of the Thames Gateway development, which was published in February 2010.

It found that the cost of installing and maintaining the sprinklers in all new housing outweighed the potential benefits.

However, it did find that installing the systems in new social housing could potentially be a cost effective option.

This conclusion was specific to the Thames Gateway development, and was based on a comparison between installing the sprinklers and providing the extra fire-fighting resources which would be required if the sprinklers were not there.

It says that social housing tenants are at greater risk from fire than other groups because of demographic factors including an ageing population, with the majority of deaths from fire occurring among those over the age of 65.

This is because people in this age group find it harder to evacuate a building in time. The disabled are vulnerable for the same reason.

Affordability

The Thames Gateway report argued that it was possible the cost of installing sprinklers would be borne by housing developers, while the extra resources for the fire brigade would come out of public funds, which could make sprinklers a better deal for the government, but would make houses more expensive to build.

Image caption The government says that the cost of compulsory fire sprinklers would make new homes unaffordable

The report stated: "Sprinklers are unlikely to have a material impact on housing supply and affordability."

However, both housing developers and the government argue that there is a trade-off between the government's aim of building more houses and the additional protection that fire sprinklers could bring.

A spokesman for the Home Builders Federation said that when the government set building standards, "the impact on viability must be considered".

Building firms already have to meet government and local authority targets on a number of issues, and any extra regulation adds to the cost of development. Eventually "it becomes not viable to build", he said.

A spokesman for the Department for Communities and Local Government said: "New regulation on housing needs to be balanced and proportionate."

"Making sprinklers compulsory in all new homes would add an estimated £2,000 to £3,000 to the regulatory cost of a new-build home, meaning fewer new homes, making home ownership less accessible especially for first-time buyers, and potentially pushing up rents in the private rented sector."

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