Achieving effective fire suppression in residential buildings

Paul Berry, director, Johnson Controls

In the year since the devastating Grenfell Tower fire, there has been a renewed focus on sprinklers and their role in fire safety and suppression. Following the tragedy, senior figures from the London Fire Brigade openly advocated for sprinkler systems to be fitted into all high-rise residential buildings, bringing sprinklers firmly into the spotlight. The official inquiry will look into existing legislation and regulations on sprinklers, and seriously review where they fell short in the months preceding the Grenfell Tower fire.

Sprinklers systems save lives, and the potential consequences of neglecting their importance has only now become clear. For fire safety professionals and building and security managers, the time has come not only for review and reappraisal, but for action – it must be ensured that sprinkler systems are installed, effective, and compliant.

For all the new discussion of sprinklers, the technology behind them has remained relatively untouched for decades – temperatures of more than 68 degrees causes a bulb in the nozzle to fracture, discharging water through the sprinkler. The quicker the response, the better, and the hardware has been proven to work, controlling or extinguishing a fire as soon as possible. A well-maintained sprinkler system should prevent fires from ever growing larger than a small fire in a bin, and these basic components do prevent further damage.

The question is – what measures can fire safety and suppression teams put in place to ensure that their sprinkler systems are up to scratch? There are four key areas for consideration: integration, intelligence, regulatory compliance, and choosing the right technology partner to help you with an install or upgrade.

Integration is key to an effective system
One prime way to improve the effectiveness of sprinkler systems is to integrate them into a wider network of fire and safety systems across a building. With the rise of IP-enabled devices which can communicate with one another, from smoke detectors to CCTV cameras, there is a whole host of new opportunities opening up to safety teams both in terms of efficiency and available services.

By managing your whole fire and security landscape through a single centralised platform or control system, you can widen your insight into what’s going on around the site, and help decrease the admin load on frontline staff. The integration of smart systems can provide facilities managers with deeper insights, faster situational judgement, and reduced administration workloads, which carry the dual benefit of an improved health and safety regime and a reduced bottom line.

In this new landscape, safety teams can increase their efficiency through a combination of innovative products and integration, connecting devices and processes which before were isolated or watched over by a single operator. For example, if fire detectors across the site are integrated with the latest CCTV technology, operators will be better equipped to aid detection and verification of fires. In the case of false alarms, CCTV cameras can help to aid the early detection and verification of fires by allowing users to view the area to gain a fuller picture of the situation – acting as a secondary investigation strategy. Building management systems can also be monitored offsite, often in groups, to consolidate administration and reduce outlay while maintaining an overview of a site.

System intelligence capabilities
Alongside better efficiency, one great benefit of IP-connected safety devices is the data that comes with them. By connecting sprinkler systems to intelligent devices throughout the building, safety teams can gain access to monitoring data from offsite and receive regular updates on any anomalies or alerts. This has multiple benefits: the obvious increased safety for people and assets in the building, a reduced need for on-site teams to physically investigate incidents, and improved convenience for on-duty safety personnel.

A connected sprinkler system, for example, could perform basic analysis on an activated unit in tandem with other safety systems to establish whether it is, or was, a real fire, and if so, how severe it is. This is currently a hypothetical ability in most facilities, but with the internet of things and its associated technologies advancing at pace, it won’t be long before increasingly sophisticated and intelligent sprinkler systems become widespread.

Current incarnations can incorporate intelligent alert systems, which are particularly useful for security managers’ night rotations. Take a warehouse that is manned by operational staff – during the day, an alarm sounding or a sprinkler activating will be quickly noticed, but during unmanned hours, an alarm may not be noticed for a much longer period of time, increasing the chance of a fire getting out of control. Connected and intelligent sprinkler systems can send signals out to responsible persons’ iPads or phones, via text message, app alerts, or whichever method is most useful. That in turn helps to provide the earliest possible warning, enabling site teams to catch a potential fire before it develops into a large or uncontrollable blaze.

Regulatory compliance
No amount of technology, however, is enough on its own. It’s essential that fire safety teams and building managers carefully consider how equipment and installations will help them achieve regulatory compliance. Following the Grenfell tragedy, it’s evident that regulatory compliance should never be a box-ticking exercise, concerned only with the letter of the law – regulations are designed to advise on and help attain best practice. The ultimate aim, after all, is to reduce health and safety risk to the lowest possible level.

In 2017, sprinkler regulations are under close scrutiny. In their current form, there is a requirement that buildings above a certain size and application must have sprinkler systems built in from the earliest stages of planning. There have been calls from the London Fire Brigade for this to be extended to all residential tower blocks, and as the Grenfell inquiry progresses and brings its recommendations to parliament, there is a significant possibility that a far larger proportion of public buildings will be required to have sprinkler systems installed in the coming years.

As a result, those responsible for fire safety must make sure that they are aware of all areas of responsibility covered by the relevant regulations. It’s not just a matter of installing sprinkler systems: servicing, maintenance, system design, and operation must all be properly attended to. Safety teams must ensure that all sprinkler systems are kept in full working order, checking components on a regular basis and running simulations where possible. Regular hazard reviews and testing carried out by certificated companies is essential, and your systems must be checked by qualified engineers.

There should also be an attitude of honesty when it comes to upgrades and change – if a system fails to meet regulations, or has degraded over time, then cost worries must come second to compliance.

Working with the right provider
That doesn’t, however, have to mean that there is a black and white choice between safety and a satisfactory balance sheet. By working with an expert fire suppression provider, businesses can achieve regulatory compliance at a workable price point through a combination of intelligent integration, admin reduction, and personalisation.

In the rush to avoid repeating the mistakes of Grenfell, there is certainly a risk that some fire safety teams may settle for less well-resourced suppliers, or those without the expertise required to sufficiently future-proof essential sprinkler systems. To avoid this, companies should be looking for professional organisations with a proven track record of successful installation – who can be product agnostic if needs be – to install and service the correct equipment for the job.

A full-service offering is a positive sign that points to a good provider – a consultative organisation that can assess needs and create solutions accordingly, specific to particular environments and systems, is key to achieving compliance and reducing risk. Companies who can provide installation, servicing, and long-term maintenance across an entire site or facility are most likely to provide the right solutions.

Sprinkler systems are no longer an option – they’re a necessity. Those with responsibility for building and fire safety must find an experienced provider and the right intelligent, integrated technology to create a reliable and safety-first fire suppression system. For the fire industry, it’s our responsibility to create systems that reduce the risk of danger as much as possible – a well-functioning sprinkler system is key.