As the UK builds ever more expansive industrial and warehousing facilities, Iain Cox, Chair of the Business Sprinkler Alliance, asks whether buyers and commercial tenants really know the fire risks they are assuming.
Fire is indiscriminate and can affect all buildings regardless of function or size, some with devastating impacts. With on average 490 fires per month in England that damage industrial and commercial buildings and numerous private businesses struggling following a major fire, why are we ending up with buildings that are vulnerable to such large fire events? What have we learnt from these fires and what is needed to achieve better fire safety outcomes in such events?
In the Midlands alone we have seen three major fires in recent months, two in Kidderminster and one in Leamington Spa. All were typified by industrial buildings that suffered large incidents. The fires generated huge plumes of thick black acrid smoke, giving rise to warnings to local residents over the potential for irritants from the fumes, and disruption to local businesses and communities. In each case the buildings were totally lost and the local fire service could only contain the fires. Sadly in the case of the major blaze at Leeson Polyurethanes in Leamington Spa on August 27th a worker lost their life.
Given the outcome people are surprised by the scale of the fires and that such buildings do not have better protection, as well as the challenges these events give the fire service. However, under current building regulations guidance, the types of buildings that suffered the devastating fires were not subject to any guidance for active fire protection, like sprinklers. As an operating business, they are required to complete and maintain an up to date fire risk assessment but this too may not lead to active fire protection. People are sometimes confused by this as they see the consequences of the fire in buildings that meet current regulations and wonder how this can be. Surely buildings of this scale that are completely damaged in a fire, in incidents that are beyond the intervention of the fire and rescue service, have fire loads within them that require forms of active fire protection like sprinklers?
Many would be surprised to hear the answer is no. Furthermore, when new industrial units are built by developers they can be erected without the knowledge of what they are going to be used for, they are built speculatively. The basic design of the building is fixed as a bare building envelope and the building can be completed on this basis. There is no incentive for them to develop a building that has anything more than the minimum.
An occupier has to then consider changes and a subsequent building control application to cover the work they will do. This process does not always appear to run smoothly and there can be anomalies.
This was clearly highlighted by a huge fire that destroyed a newly-opened 38,000m2, non-sprinklered warehouse in Daventry in 2018. To this day, it is still not clear on what basis the building was felt to have met the guidance within Building Regulations. A building of this size, with significant amounts of storage in high racking inside was a clear case where active fire protection like sprinklers would make sense, even the regulatory guidance said so, yet none was provided. The warehouse has not been rebuilt to date but planning permission to rebuild, without any indications of any sprinkler provisions, is still in place.
How could this be? Different people involved in the design and construction of a building are assuming the level of risk when it comes to fire, but a clear discussion between the interested parties does not always take place. Who is responsible for the fire risk? Sadly the outcomes suggest that most assume that somebody is taking care of it, but an active decision is not clear. You only have to look at the revelations from the inquiry into the Grenfell tragedy to realise these conversations are not taking place and it is not just in high rise residential buildings. In short, there is a gap of ownership when it comes to fire and unless you are an active participant in these discussions the outcome is unclear.
Stakeholders may all be involved in conversations about fire engineering but unless somebody steps in to actually make an active decision, it’s like being a ship at sea, blown in a general direction. When you haven’t been active in that decision and steered the ship, you shouldn’t assume that you’re going to land at the point you really want to get to.
There is also a more fundamental question here when there is a lack of discussion. We’re building to a certain set of building regulations and guidance but did they set us on the right path to deliver good outcomes? We can build even bigger buildings, with higher fire loads but ultimately when there is a fire and no protection from sprinklers, the fire service cannot be expected to deal with it. We must therefore question why we are building buildings we cannot protect. Are we cognisant of the hazards in these buildings and the real outcome they will deliver?