Fire Risk: Are We Asking the Right Questions?

A recent study conducted by the Business Sprinkler Alliance – entitled ‘UK: Commercial and Industrial Attitudes Study 2018- – confirmed that the uptake of fire safety sprinkler systems is low, with 68% of those interviewed having been involved in a decision not to include an automatic fire sprinkler system on at least one occasion during the past 12 months. With fire being the leading cause of commercial property loss according to the Association of British Insurers, fire prevention in commercial buildings is crucial, but are people considering the big picture when they deal with hazards? Iain Cox searches for an answer.

It’s often the case that we spare no expense in value engineering projects to bring them down to the lowest price, but in doing so we make compromises with buildings, so things such as sprinklers are taken out. When people realise their mistake, it’s often too late.

Sadly, this was the case when a devastating fire destroyed a recently-opened 40,000 m2 unsprinklered warehouse in Daventry. Despite more than 50 firefighters tackling the blaze, the Gardman garden supplies distribution centre was completely destroyed, impacting not only the business and its employees, but also retailers, the local economy and the environment.

The ripple effect from the destructive fire came at the height of the supply season in March last year with the loss of £20 million of Gardman stock felt by retailers who relied upon its 4,000 lines of garden products. There were disruption and smoke warnings issued following the fire, while fire water run-off needed to be monitored by the Environment Agency.  There was the environmental impact of disposing of the damaged property, where the costs, resources and materials required to rebuild it would be in excess of £30 million. Significantly more than the cost to install sprinklers, which would have been in the region of £900,000.

While, thankfully, there was no loss of life, the lasting effect was undeniable as the business went into administration before the end of last year.

A similar fate befell Asian snack manufacturer UK Snacks, which collapsed into administration nine months after a major fire destroyed areas of its warehouse. While there might have been other reasons for the company’s unfortunate fate, the fire would have caused disruption to the business. This showcases how companies are not always resilient after fire. Although insurance can support replacing equipment, the move to an alternate location to maintain business operations and support continuity efforts takes an inordinate amount of time and effort. Unless trading can continue quickly, businesses feel the financial pressure of maintaining cash flow and often flounder. 

Building fires such as these occur at a higher frequency than you might expect and have an impact that goes way beyond that of the owners and the location’s immediate occupiers. The fire safety guidance of the Building Regulations (provided by Approved Document B) is based on a consideration of life safety impacts. However, as recent fires in the city centres of London, Belfast and Glasgow have shown, the impact of a fire is wider with economic, social and environmental implications.

Why, then, is property protection and business resilience not given greater consideration, and why are businesses willing to take the risk?

Fire losses

Fire remains the leading cause of commercial property loss, with the Association of British Insurers predicting that UK businesses could stand to lose £10 billion between 2010 and 2020 as a result of fire. However, businesses should take note of findings from the Chartered Institute of Loss Adjusters which found that 43% of business interruption polices were under-insured by an average of 53%.

At the same time, businesses are not valuing what they own in terms of property and think they’re going to recover a good deal quicker than they do. They’re failing to see the real impact of fire and leaving themselves exposed. 

Home Office figures highlight that the Fire and Rescue Service in England has attended 26,800 fires in industrial and commercial buildings in the past three years. From offices to industrial buildings and healthcare facilities to hotels; the impact of a major fire can be devastating and many businesses never recover.

The cost of fires in industrial and commercial buildings goes far beyond the expense and impacts on individual businesses and insured costs. Fires are the cause of significant economic, environmental and community costs, many of which are ultimately borne by the taxpayer.

To reduce the risk to life and the degree of damage in a fire event, the inclusion of automatic sprinkler systems is proven time and time again to be both effective and efficient in a wide range of fire scenarios and building types, affording greater levels of fire protection for people, property and the environment.

Sprinklers work

There’s clear evidence that sprinklers work. In fact, the National Fire Chiefs Council and the National Fire Sprinkler Network have worked together to investigate the effectiveness and reliability of sprinkler systems. In an independent study carried out by Optimal Economics in May 2017, thousands of incidents have been analysed to provide detailed and comprehensive analysis of the activation and performance of sprinkler systems used to control fire in buildings.

The resulting evidence indicates that sprinkler systems have an operational reliability of 94% and demonstrate, when called to work, they have a very high reliability.

Furthermore, it’s evident that when they do operate they extinguish or contain the fire on 99% of occasions across a wide range of building types. This is why they’re chosen to protect people, buildings and businesses, in turn ensuring business continuity and productivity.

Automatic sprinkler systems offer the business owner reliable, long-lived and proven technology which can reduce the risk to life and degree of damage caused in a fire event. These systems make buildings and businesses resilient to fire incidents because they control or extinguish a fire before the Fire and Rescue Service arrive. The impacted business can be back up-and-running very quickly, avoiding the economic and social costs.

The contrast between two buildings with and without a sprinkler system in a fire can be quite stark. In the event of a fire, many businesses with sprinkler systems suffer a minor interruption and find they are back up-and-running in a matter of hours. Those without such protection can see five-to-six times the damage and suffer longer spells of operational interruption.

These systems make buildings and businesses resilient to fire because they control or extinguish a blaze before the Fire and Rescue Service arrive on scene. The impact on the business is minimal, while the economic and social costs are avoided altogether.

Iain Cox is Chairman of the Business Sprinkler Alliance

About the Author
Brian Sims BA (Hons) Hon FSyI, Editor, Risk UK (Pro-Activ Publications) Beginning his career in professional journalism at The Builder Group in March 1992, Brian was appointed Editor of Security Management Today in November 2000 having spent eight years in engineering journalism across two titles: Building Services Journal and Light & Lighting. In 2005, Brian received the BSIA Chairman’s Award for Promoting The Security Industry and, a year later, the Skills for Security Special Award for an Outstanding Contribution to the Security Business Sector. In 2008, Brian was The Security Institute’s nomination for the Association of Security Consultants’ highly prestigious Imbert Prize and, in 2013, was a nominated finalist for the Institute's George van Schalkwyk Award. An Honorary Fellow of The Security Institute, Brian serves as a Judge for the BSIA’s Security Personnel of the Year Awards and the Securitas Good Customer Award. Between 2008 and 2014, Brian pioneered the use of digital media across the security sector, including webinars and Audio Shows. Brian’s actively involved in 50-plus security groups on LinkedIn and hosts the popular Risk UK Twitter site. Brian is a frequent speaker on the conference circuit. He has organised and chaired conference programmes for both IFSEC International and ASIS International and has been published in the national media. Brian was appointed Editor of Risk UK at Pro-Activ Publications in July 2014 and as Editor of The Paper (Pro-Activ Publications' dedicated business newspaper for security professionals) in September 2015. Brian was appointed Editor of Risk Xtra at Pro-Activ Publications in May 2018.

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