Local fire chief backs calls for sprinklers in all council housing blocks

Last night the Council’s Economic Regeneration, Housing and the Arts Policy and Accountability Committee discussed fire safety.

The Council’s fire safety proposals say there is a “plan” for sprinklers in “all high rise blocks” but adds the caveat “we are drawing up specifications for the work for each block where sprinklers would help improve safety.” There was no plan for sprinklers in blocks of under six storeys. There was also a lack of clarity over whether sprinklers would be installed in each flat of just in the communal areas – although I was pleased to obtain an assurance that leaseholders would not be charged for sprinklers in any event.

Paul Kavanagh, the Borough Commander for Hammersmith and Fulham of the London Fire Brigade, was present. He was very clear that sprinklers should be installed in all flats in all blocks. The evidence is conclusive. The Chief Fire Officers Association looking at the experience in the UK and internationally states:

“There are no cases on record where multiple fire deaths have occurred in buildings with working sprinkler systems, where those systems have been appropriately designed for the intended purpose, have been properly installed and maintained. The evidence also shows that no lives have been lost in the UK due to fire in homes fitted with domestic sprinkler systems.”

The Council’s report said that the costs of its Fire Safety Plus programme would be “between £20-50 million.”

Within that budget sprinklers in each council home could be funded. Hammersmith and Fulham Council has 12,500 tenanted properties and 4,600 leasehold properties. So 17,000 (including 4,000 street properties where sprinklers would still improve safety although the current risk is obviously lower than in blocks of flats.) The Callow Mount report found that the cost of retrofitting was £1,150 per flat. The total cost would be around £20 million even if street properties were included.

The reason sprinklers should be the priority is that where they are installed (and properly maintained) they will save lives even when the other hazards are overlooked. For instance there are many blocks in the borough where steel window frames have been replaced with plastic ones. As the Fire Brigade Borough Commander confirmed last night that increases risk – as plastic burns rather more easily than steel. The flames can spread from floor to floor. But if sprinklers are installed the fire won’t spread as it will be put out.

Similarly with cladding, with external panels, with missing fire doors, with exploding electrical appliances, with obstructions at fire exits, with a lack of concierge staff, with a lack of heat detectors, the array of failings in the Fire Risk Assessments (which the Council still hasn’t published)…all these problems can exist but if the sprinklers are installed and maintained death will be averted.

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