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Wales makes sprinklers mandatory in all new homes

Welsh Assembly Members voted to make Wales the first country in the world to make fire suppression systems (sprinklers) mandatory in all new homes.
Sprinklers in all new homes mandatory in Wales

A backbench legislation introduced in 2007 by Ann Jones helps make fire suppression systems – Sprinkler a must in all new homes in Wales.

On 16th February 2011, Welsh Assembly Members voted to make Wales the first country in the world to make fire suppression systems (sprinklers) mandatory in all new homes. I first introduced this backbench legislation in 2007 and have worked collaboratively with the Fire & Rescue Service (where I started my career as a Fire Control Room Officer) to create a compelling moral and technical case for this groundbreaking measure.

As I guided the legislation through various committees, my colleagues were surprised to learn that sprinklers have been in existence since the 1880s so much so that I was asked to repeat this for the record which I happily did.

This single moment is quite telling about the misinformation that surrounds the life saving device that is a sprinkler. As product sprinklers have not changed a great deal since their inception in the 19th Century, and the record shows, that time and time again, they are saving lives. In sprinklers, we have; are liable, cost effective method of avoiding death and injury caused by domestic fire. Before deliberating the costs of sprinklers (which actually provide savings) we should assess the cost of the status quo because the stark truth is that people are dying in homes that meet current building regulations and it’s not good enough.

As I said prior to the final vote to approve this Measure (a Welsh Act), we have waited well over one hundred years for the industry to start fitting sprinklers in people’s home but it is simply not happening in the UK meaning that this legislation is long overdue. When the stand alone regulations following this measure are in place, I will be proud that Wales is taking action to avoid death and injury caused by domestic fire. In Wales alone, 107 people have died in domestic fires since 2004 and I am convinced that the main cause of those deaths was a lack of sprinkler protection.

That is the perspective we should take when looking at the statistics on domestic fire deaths because if this was a health issue regarding a terminal disease or condition, that is exactly how we would approach the matter. If there is a cure available to prevent death through illness, our first questions are about the accessibility of that treatment and possible methods of prevention. For some reason, we do not look at fire deaths in the same way but with this legislation in Wales, I believe this is changing.

Most advanced evidence on the use of sprinklers comes from North American and Canadian city of Vancouver and Scottsdale, Arizona

Before being elected to the National Assembly for Wales, I spent over 20 years in the Fire & Rescue Service and I saw the devastation that fire causes at first hand. My job was to ensure that the service response was fast and that the whole operation ran as effectively as possible. During this time, I shared the views of my colleagues that on too many occasions, we were attending funerals after deaths that could have been avoided. It is this experience that motivated my calls, for this legislation, as well as my successful campaign to make sprinklers a legal standard, in all new schools in Wales.

As the long scrutiny process displayed, the most advanced evidence on the use of sprinklers in domestic settings comes from North American and specifically from the Canadian city of Vancouver and Scottsdale, Arizona in the USA. In July 1985, Scottsdale City Council passed an Ordinance making sprinklers mandatory in all new homes and commercial premises and in 1995 followed this with a ten year study ‘Saving Lives; Saving money’. The two most compelling statistics are that 8 lives were definitely saved and an estimated cost of $25m was avoided. The environmental savings were also made clear as the study reveals that an estimated 209 gallons of water was used by sprinkler systems per incident compared with the 3,209 gallons estimated for manual suppression. The other key environmental and safety attribute of sprinkler protection is that you can almost guarantee that these homes will not need to be rebuilt as fires are contained to small sections within the room of origin. It follows then, that new homes in Wales will not be threatened by unchecked fires meaning that all the environmental costs associated with uncontrolled fires, the clearance of a site and rebuilding is eliminated. For good.

Evidence from the city of Vancouver also reveals the advantage of sprinklers. Byelaws have been in place since 1972. At that time the number of deaths per 100,000 of the population was just under 7 per year. By the period 1992-1998, that figure had fallen to 0.6 as a result of the mandatory sprinkler regulations.     

In the majority of cases, just one or two sprinkler heads are required to control or even completely extinguish a domestic fire which offers a dramatically improved level of safety for individuals and families in their homes. The ability of one or two sprinkler heads to contain a fire offers, in the first case, a much easier route of escape for occupants in other rooms within the property and virtually removes the risk of injury altogether. Secondly, it creates routes for escape for occupants in the room of origin or the ability to remain safe if escape is inhibited by illness, disability or age etc. The Fire & Rescue Service is likely to respond a house fire within 8-10 minutes where as a sprinkler system will kick in as soon as the temperature at the ceiling reaches 68 degrees centigrade which means that suppression should start between 90 seconds and 4 minutes of the fire’s inception. Those minutes are pivotal to any one stuck within a property as smoke inhalation becomes over whelming long before fire fighters can arrive while serious injuries can be sustained from the effects of flashover (where every surface within a room becomes inflamed), exploding TV sets or falling decorations and/or fittings etc. With sprinkler protection that scenario is avoided, as the fire is not allowed to develop unchecked.

Home Builder’s Federation expressed concerns that this extra layer of regulation would inhibit the development of new housing in Wales

Through out the legislative process, my proposal enjoyed cross party and Government support in Wales. I was also offered constant support by Wales’ Fire & Rescue Services, the Chief Fire Officer’s Association (UK), National Fire Sprinkler Network, European Fire Sprinkler Network, Fire Brigades Union, the TUC and the British Fire Sprinkler Association. The opposition to the Measure was not vigorous or wide spread when compared with that of other legislative proposals. The Home Builder’s Federation expressed concerns that this extra layer of regulation would inhibit the development of new housing in Wales but much of the evidence; it has to be said, was anecdotal and did not in any way match the experience in North America. In 2009 the National Fire Protection Association (USA) published Comparative Analysis of Housing Cost and Supply Impacts of Sprinkler Ordinances at the Community Level which compared neighbouring counties with and without sprinkler requirements. The study conclusively found that there was no reduction in the number of homes built in counties with sprinkler requirements. It is also interesting to note that when the authors interviewed local homebuilders’ there were repeated references to other regulations and building fees in all the counties studied. Interviewees felt that these other requirements dwarfed any cost effects from the sprinkler installation requirements.’

The strength of the evidence from the USA, which has been tested over some 30 years or so, is compelling but it is still the case that successive UK Governments have refused to update our research. The most commonly used research in the UK at present is the form of a British Research Establishment report from 2004 which does not give proper weight to this international evidence and relies on evidence that, in some cases, reverts back to the 1980s. This limited evidence base is being used as a rationale for the perception that sprinkler systems are too risky an option in residential premises. As the legislative process in Wales has shown, this approach is outdated and, in my view, dangerously complacent. The issue is made more intractable with the advent of a UK Government wedded to the principle of deregulation. The difference in Wales was that legislators– In the form of Assembly Members–approached the issue with open minds and were willing to listen to, and take seriously, the assertions of experts and those working within the Fire & Rescue Service.

In my view, there are significant barriers to this becoming legislation in England but at the same time. Those lobbying the Government are building a strong and sophisticated case and have already gained a major fillip with new legislation in Wales– the first of its kind in the World. It is my hope that by leading the way in the UK, Wales will provide unavoidable pressure on the UK Government to act as lives, property and money is saved in the coming years. The question we need to as know is; can we afford to build homes without sprinklers?

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