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As part of our series of expert discussions around fire risks in the commercial property sector, Nathan Brew, Technical, Quality & Development Manager at NFU Mutual Risk Management Services Limited, examines the advantages of sprinkler systems.

Value of fire protection systems

The international Food and Drink sector recently suffered a series of high-profile fires, with the damage to factories and warehouse facilities running into hundreds of millions of pounds. 

The result for business has been more complex and costly cover. One way to help counter this is to install additional fire protection systems such as sprinklers. Such measures not only reduce the risk of a costly outbreak, but can also help businesses secure more favourable premiums and terms from their insurer.

Over 600 fires occur on warehousing and manufacturing sites across England every year.

BRE Global, independent three year study originally published in 2014

A limited uptake

When a fire occurs, the long-term consequences to a business’s reputation can be as devastating as the initial damage. Disrupted supply chains, disappointed customers, a laid-off workforce – the effects are often grim. Yet all of these problems can potentially be avoided by the adoption of sprinkler systems. Unfortunately, their uptake in this country is not as widespread as it should be.

Fires can be catastrophic for any business, so it is perhaps surprising to learn that there is no legal requirement in the UK for the majority of businesses to install sprinklers. Currently, only businesses with warehouses measuring more than 20,000 m2are obliged to fit a fire sprinkler system. Yet in Europe, many countries expect sprinklers to be a priority fire protection in most cases. The result is that European  businesses are far better prepared and equipped to deal with the effects of a fire than their UK competitors.

Challenging the myths 

The regulatory situation in the UK regarding sprinklers has led to some businesses not giving them the consideration they deserve. This view has been compounded by a number of myths derived from films and TV shows as to how sprinklers actually operate. For dramatic effect, filmmakers tend to show every sprinkler being activated during a fire, causing widespread water damage. The more mundane reality is that only those sprinklers directly next to the fire are triggered. In fact, the majority of fires are contained by just two sprinkler heads. It is important that businesses don't allow themselves to be misled by media misconceptions.

 Why sprinklers?

  • Rapid Control. Sprinklers control 88% of fires before the fire service arrives
  • Containment. 89% of fires are confined to the room of origin (57% without sprinklers)
  • Low water damage. Sprinkler heads use fifteen times less water than firefighters for the same impact
  • Reliability. There's only a 1 in 16,000,000 chance of a sprinkler causing an accidental discharge of water
  • Environmentally-friendly. Sprinklers limit airborne pollutants from fire, and the small volume of water used prevents contaminated run-off entering rivers and drains.

Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOA)

Every second counts 

Quite simply, the earlier a fire comes under control, the less risk there is to life and property. Sprinklers are activated by a temperature increase, normally within three minutes of the fire’s ignition. They are designed to bring a fire under control within five minutes, well before the Fire and Rescue Service has arrived. Indeed, research shows that in buildings with sprinkler systems, 88of fires are brought under control by the time the emergency services reach the outbreak, with sprinklers containing 89% of fires within the room of origin. Even if the fire isn’t fully extinguished, precious time is saved, and the risk to both the firefighters and property is greatly diminished.

“The installation of fire sprinklers could virtually eliminate fire deaths”.

British Automatic Fire Sprinkler Association (BAFSA)

A compelling case

When it comes to sprinklers, the figures speak for themselves. A report by BRE Global concluded that “whole-life costs for warehouse buildings larger than 2,000 mwith fire sprinklers are on average 3.7 times lower than for ones without them.”

The report goes on to state that if more sprinklers were fitted, the annual saving to businesses could be £210 million. Add to this reduced CO2 emissions from the fire itself, as well as the saving in water used to fight the fire, and the argument for sprinklers becomes a compelling one.

There is some movement. The ABI have backed sprinkler use in buildings of more than 2,000 m2. However, we would recommend that UK businesses recognise the benefits of sprinklers for themselves, rather than waiting for legislation to lead the way.

For more information on how NFU Mutual can help safeguard your business, get in touch with your local office.

NFU Mutual Risk Management Services Limited is a subsidiary of NFU Mutual and is committed to providing a high level of guidance and advice on many aspects of health and safety.

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