The Grenfell Tower and Sprinklers

From the BBC:

London’s fire commissioner says the Grenfell Tower blaze must be a “turning point”, calling for sprinklers in all high-rise council flats.

Dany Cotton, commissioner of the London Fire Brigade, said: “I think Grenfell should be a turning point.

“I support retrofitting – for me where you can save one life then it’s worth doing.

“This can’t be optional, it can’t be a nice to have, this is something that must happen.

“If that isn’t one of the recommendations (of the Grenfell Tower inquiry) then I will be so very disappointed.”

Firstly a little on the background of Dany Cotton:

Since 2017, she has served as the Commissioner of the London Fire Brigade and is the first woman to hold this position. She had previously been the Director of Safety and Assurance at the London Fire Brigade. In 2004 Cotton became the first woman to be awarded the Queen’s Fire Service Medal. She is the National Chair of Networking Women in the Fire Service.

Aged 19, she had been a full fire-fighter for just three months when she attended the Clapham Junction rail crash. In 2007, she was assigned the post of Area Commander, becoming the highest-ranking woman in the British Fire Service.

Her professional biography seems to be a lot more about being a woman than a firefighter. But let’s look at her remarks.

Retrofitting sprinklers into an existing building will be extortionately expensive:

Croydon Council, in south London, has taken the decision to retrofit sprinklers in its 25 high-rise blocks at a cost of £10m.

I bet that figure will triple. Of course, somebody who has only every worked for a taxpayer-funded organisation like Cotton wouldn’t care too much about what things cost. Look at this statement again:

for me where you can save one life then it’s worth doing.

For a public servant in charge of safety to come out with this is rather illuminating, as it appears she has no idea about how resources are applied to minimise risk. When it comes to safety, you want to spend the money in the areas where it will have the most impact. For example, do you spend £10m on sprinkler systems if the same money spent on networked fire alarms and better fire doors would save more lives? This is something a risk assessment and cost benefit analysis would tell us, and this is what should have been done. The fact that we have the head of the London Fire Brigade saying sprinklers should be retrofitted regardless of cost and their effectiveness suggests that it hasn’t. Then again, nobody seems even in the slightest bit interested in what caused the initial fire, so perhaps we ought not be surprised.

The money from these sprinklers has to come from somewhere, and this will mean cuts to other services or an increase in rents. If the latter, it will push those at the margins into cheaper, less safe accommodation. The video here is not an outtake from The Lord of the Rings but an interview with a spectacularly smug and idiotic Welsh MP talking about Wales being the first country ever to make sprinklers mandatory in all new homes:

I hope they will just look and listen, and I think this idea about over-burdening and over-regulating has proved that we do have to have those regulations. You know, sprinklers have been around since 1886 and the building industry haven’t used them successfully so, you know, if you’re not going to use them in goodwill, then as we have done in Wales, we’ll mandate for you to use them to keep people safe.

Aside from the first sentence being gibberish, at no point does it occur to her that there are good reasons why not a single country in the world has insisted sprinklers are installed in ordinary homes since their alleged invention in 1886. But apparently the Welsh know better and have made it compulsory, and now want to foist this idiocy on the rest of the country.

All this will do is push up the cost of housing, which in the UK is the last thing you want to do. Again, this will simply push those at the margins into cheaper, less safe accommodation. And presumably all homeowners and tenants will know exactly how these systems work and are maintained. I know I wouldn’t.

There’s also the issue of how effective sprinklers are in houses and flats. My understanding, at least from how they’re deployed on oil and gas installations, is they exist to keep surfaces cool and stop fires spreading as opposed to putting fires out. From what I can work out, the fire protection philosophy in buildings is to contain the fire using fire doors, use sprinklers to stop it spreading and keep the escape ways clear, giving you time to evacuate. The fire brigade then come in and put the fire out. In other words, they make sense in places with a proper evacuation plan but not so much in stand-alone private residences.

Interestingly, I’m sat in a 40-storey tower built between 1982-85 which has no sprinkler system. They have fire hoses on each floor but (and I’ve just checked) no sprinklers in the offices, corridors, or stairwells. Is the building unsafe? Probably not. Every door is a fire door, they have a decent alarm system and in the event it goes off everyone evacuates. I suspect a more modern tower would have a sprinkler system in, but I am reasonably sure its purpose would not be to put out an actual fire.

Would sprinkler systems help in a tower like Grenfell? Probably. Would they make much difference in the absence of fire doors and an evacuation procedure? Probably not. They might keep the stairwell clear, but if they’re installed in the apartments themselves you can expect a lot of spurious discharges as people set them off by mistake or maliciously, which would upset those in the flats below. Are they worth the money? In a new-build block, probably. But to insist they’re retrofitted regardless of cost or the lives they’ll save is madness, as is mandating their installation in new-build houses. The money would be far better spent on other fire-safety measures.

I think people have seized upon sprinklers as the solution of the day without really knowing what they’re for or how they work, let alone what they cost. That the head of the London Fire Brigade doesn’t seem to know any better ought to shock, but actually it doesn’t, not at all. This is the new normal. At least she’s got a few medals.

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16 thoughts on “The Grenfell Tower and Sprinklers

  1. Retrofitting of sprinklers in multi story buildings of Grenfell vintage would also likely result in having to make holes in walls.

    Most of the focus goes on cladding and sprinklers but I remember reading that in the recent upgrades that new heating had been installed so the integrity of the compartmentalised structure was then ruined because it was full of holes.

    Difficult to believe that the appointed contractor would have ensured that the gaps were sealed appropriately when you remember what they did with the gas riser in the stair well.

  2. This whole thing is like one of those third world type incidents, you know the ones where a petrol tanker overturns, the locals start robbing tins of fuel and then someone lights up a fag and kaboom. Then there is the head of the Fire Brigade and the mayor talking absolute shit based on a state TV investigation finding many months later, zero credibility but you get that in those kind of places, except this is London in 2017 and it is not a nightmare, its really happening.

    So is she now going to resign having just admitted that she presided over this unsafe situation.

  3. She has to be seen to be doing something, and the larger amount of other people’s money that she spends then the more she will be seen to have accomplished.

    The Welsh MP should have auditioned for the role of Gollum’s horse.

  4. If you look at the bleating and wailing there was from the residents association at Grenfell while they were having their windows replaced and the building *externally* insulated, you’ll see that the inconveniences of a complete sprinkler installation would be totally unacceptable to their kin in other blocks.

    No doubt they’ll all need to be put up in hotels while it’s done. Which should at least cause some sub-letting-related embarrassment, so perhaps it’s not all bad.

  5. Sprinklers in domestic housing are just nuts. Good fire alarms in most rooms would achieve better outcomes and they cost $100, sprinklers will be many thousands and fail far more often than they would ever operate effectively.

  6. Okay just looked it up and it makes perfect sense now.

    Baby Names Dany, the name Dany is a baby boy name.

    Gaelic Meaning: The name Dany is a Gaelic baby name. In Gaelic the meaning of the name Dany is: Dark.

  7. The same stupid cow told us she was worried the tower would collapse… Yes a reinforced concrete egg box structure.

    Many people seem to think that sprinklers put out fires, sadly the stupid cow thinks so too. One look at the hoses the fire brigade use compared to the pipes that connect to the sprinkler tells us otherwise. You would think she would know this but has spent most of her career pushing paper, rather than fighting fires.

    I am told that the fire brigade could not get the dry riser to work… so expect in a few years time a report that one of these high rise slums burns down with a sprinklers that mysteriously don’t work.

    But they are still going to knock more holes in the fire compartmentalisation to fit the sprinklers, so the next time some vibrant BBQs goat in their flat, the sprinkler will go off and they will all receive a much needed shower.

  8. I also work in a 40something storey building. We had a test evacuation this week.

    The communication following it reminded everyone not to be overly concerned while going down the stairwell as it is fireproof for at least 2 hours.

  9. Okay just looked it up and it makes perfect sense now.

    Baby Names Dany, the name Dany is a baby boy name.

    Gaelic Meaning: The name Dany is a Gaelic baby name. In Gaelic the meaning of the name Dany is: Dark.

    I doubt that is so- certainly not Irish gaelic, whatever about Scottish gaelic.
    It is more likely to be a modish misspelling of Danny, and an affected give-a-girl-a-boy’s-name, such as Jack or Billie.

  10. For a public servant in charge of safety to come out with this is rather illuminating, as it appears she has no idea about how resources are applied to minimise risk. When it comes to safety, you want to spend the money in the areas where it will have the most impact

    As I read this post, the episode of the Simpsons and the Bear Patrols came to mind

  11. I have heard that many fire brigades are hampered when high riser inlet valves are routinely being vandalised. Hard to put out fires when they are out of reach. Of course, the feckless unemployed and turd-worlders haven’t much to do in these places so it makes sense to vandalise something that may help save their lives.

  12. Surely it would be much more effective to mandate the installation of automatic HALON or CO2 fire suppression systems?

  13. You totally miss the point about installing sprinklers.

    Something must be done.
    This is something.
    Let’s do it.

    The powers that be fail utterly to distinguish between activity and action.

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