When a proven domestic safety measure, easily installed and widely available, also has the backing of industry professionals and campaign groups, it’s right to ask why every home doesn’t’ have one. But is it really that simple? Value, price, cost-efficiencies, economics and politics all play a role in explaining why legislation around residential fire sprinklers, hasn’t happened with the speed many would wish.
Value and risk in the eye of the stakeholder
One route to deciding if something merits our hard-earned cash, is to question whether outlay and outcome represent value for money. But value is a subjective commodity and why some choose holidays over savings or a new car over refitting the kitchen. ‘Value’, like ‘risk’ is fluid and firmly in the eye of the stakeholder.
The Price of Not Acting
December 14, 2017, marks six months since the fire at Grenfell Tower in London. Predictably, the question of fire sprinkler use is again at the fore and it’s easy to see why. Statistics show deaths in buildings protected by sprinkler systems to be a rare occurrence. Yet, whilst developers, designers and landlords must conform to Fire Safety Regulations, the inclusion of sprinklers in all new-build domestic properties, is not compulsory. Misconceptions around cost, aesthetics and conflicting opinion as to cost-efficiencies haven’t helped.
A number of studies have considered the ‘cost-efficiencies’ of fire sprinkler systems, and in reaching their conclusions, assigned varying values to a single human life. And therein lies the problem, because whatever the demographic of a given ‘population’ – elements which studies factor into their findings – a supplier’s invoice, and loss of life do not share a common currency. A formulaic approach to deciding how we best protect people and in what circumstances, might aid financial decision making but when lives are lost, calculations lose their relevance.
The only reasonable premise is that everyone deserves the best possible protection from fire, and how, not whether that’s achievable. The answer, when it comes, will describe a mix of fire safety measures, and collaboration between government, fire safety professionals, designers ,developers, Housing asssociations and Landlords but it won’t be easy.
A Sense of Perspective
Let’s look at this on a smaller scale – the cost of installing fire sprinklers in a single dwelling, compared to something else with a definable monetary price tag, like carpets.
A mains-fed fire sprinkler system, and the carpets for a domestic property will cost about the same. Sprinkler systems need annual maintenance, carpets require hoovering and cleaning.
Carpets provide warmth and comfort, fire sprinklers offer peace of mind and enhanced protection of lives, property and the environment. Carpets suffer wear and tear, fire sprinklers correctly installed and maintained, last indefinitely. Residential fire sprinkler systems save lives, carpets …
It’s not that carpets don’t matter – of course they do, along with everything else that makes a house a home – but it is worth looking at the reality of what sprinkler systems cost compared to other household items, and the value of what they offer in return. In an ideal world, no homeowner or landlord will ever come to realise the absolute value of the fire protection measures they choose to install, but it’s fair to say that their assessment will differ before and after a fire.
‘Once is a Mistake, twice is a decision’
It’s unthinkable, in the aftermath of Grenfell, that government will not revisit and enhance legislation around fire safety measures, including retrofitting fire sprinkler systems to existing properties.
Inquests held in the wake of earlier fires – tragedies that should have served as a leveller between officials charged with mitigating risk and those who endured the consequences – made for painful reporting. In addition to their findings, Coroners issued recommendations, to which more attention should have been paid. If the past teaches us anything, it’s not to make the same mistake twice, or as one wise soul put it “once is a mistake, twice is a decision.”
Ripple Effect on the Economy
Compulsory fitting of residential fire sprinklers could increase construction costs, and impact supply, affordability and sale or rental values per unit, though some researchers firmly believe this would not be the case. The Thames Gateway Report (specific to the Thames Gateway development) provides further reading and opinion on the subject.
What we do know is that increased demand for fire sprinkler systems, installation and maintenance work, would deliver a welcome boost to manufacturing, GDP, jobs and apprenticeships.
Government can expect fierce lobbying from all sides and will attempt a balance – measures that do not over-burden developers and landlords or reduce housing stocks and affordability.
The Bottom Line
More fire sprinklers might translate to less demands on Fire and other ‘blue light’ services, for which there will be a cost saving to government, but not upgrading safety legislation guarantees further loss of life in domestic fires, to which we cannot assign a value, only the minus sign in front of it. So, the question remains, why doesn’t every home have one?