Fire safety has risen to the forefront of industry discussions lately following the tragic events at Grenfell Tower. Unfortunately, there are still around 700 fires in schools across England every year costing tens of millions of pounds and putting people’s lives at risk. The UK Fire Chief has stated that all new and refurbished schools in the UK should be fitted with automatic sprinkler systems to suppress any fire outbreak. The potential for serious fire to occur in schools has been highlighted over many years by fire professionals; however, sprinkler systems are not currently mandatory in England or Northern Ireland as they are in Scotland and Wales.
An official review into the Building Regulations and British and European Standards is currently ongoing; it is likely that with these updated publications, more stringent rules and requirements about fire safety within buildings will be enforced. Building Bulletin 100 (BB100 – Fire Safety Design for Schools) offers school-specific advice on how to achieve the requirements of Approved Document B (Fire Safety). Throughout BB100 there are clear references to the benefits of sprinkler systems; however, for the moment, the requirement for sprinkler systems is based on a cost-benefit analysis. There are many benefits to sprinkler systems such as contamination control (fires often release asbestos and other contaminants), potential savings on building insurance premiums, limitation of damage to building fabric when a fire does occur, but most importantly, they can reduce the risk to life.
The below figure (ref. BB100, page 27, Figure 8) provides a good diagrammatical representation of this cost-benefit analysis:
Incorporating automatic sprinkler systems at the time of constructing a building is the most cost-effective time to install a system as it presents optimum design flexibility. However, with many existing schools throughout England facing the requirement to improve their current fire precautions, the need to retrofit sprinklers (or other fire control, suppressing or extinguishing systems) is a common and sensible solution. These retrofitting projects can be challenging but, with the correct planning, can provide significant benefits and risk reduction. Key challenges can include:
- Disruption to building occupants, requiring works to be executed in a phased manner or within a limited window of time
- Effective and timely management of enabling / associated works - for example, asbestos removal, impact on other services and the reinstatement of finishes
- Structural and space constraints within the existing building when installing water storage tanks.
In addition to the above, establishing a suitable and reliable water supply is essential. Whether that is a direct connection to a supplier’s main, a stored and pumped water supply or a suitably sized cistern supply.
Progression in technologies of building materials has assisted with the installation of sprinkler systems, such as chlorinated PVC piping – providing quicker and safer installation through negating the need for ‘hot works’ and manual handling of difficult pipework (such as copper or steel).
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When designing and installing sprinkler systems, it is paramount that this is completed in accordance with industry standards including BS 9999:2017 (Fire safety in the design, management and use of buildings. Code of practice) and BS EN 12845:2015 (Fixed firefighting systems. Automatic sprinkler systems. Design, installation and maintenance). When appointing an installing contractor, it is prudent to check that they possess specific third-party accreditation, such as FIRAS and bafsa as well as the more general accreditations such as UKAS and health and safety related bodies such as CHAS.
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