A fire safety expert has urged councils to act carefully if they intend to install sprinklers in tenants’ homes without fitting them in leaseholder properties.
The caution came as one West Midlands local authority insisted social tenants would be “no less safe” if some leaseholders in the same towers declined to install sprinklers.
Tamworth Borough Council has appointed a project manager for a long-awaited scheme to fit sprinkler systems to seven residential blocks in the West Midlands city.
The project, first approved in 2014 but since amended, will now see sprinklers installed in 346 council-owned flats.
After more than 30 leaseholders initially objected to being included in the scheme, a recent council cabinet meeting agreed to allow for “the installation of sprinklers in leasehold flats at no cost to the leaseholder”.
However, the local authority suggested it was willing to leave certain homes out of the project if their leaseholders continued to object.
Michelle Thurgood, cabinet member for housing at Tamworth Borough Council, said: “Our aim is to install sprinklers in all flats, including those of leaseholders who wish to avail of our offer.
“All of our high-rise blocks comply with current safety requirements and regulations, and they are inspected regularly. The sprinklers will provide an additional layer of fire safety.
“The blocks will be no less safe or compliant as a result of some flats not being included, should that be the case, and this has been confirmed by the fire and rescue service.”
But Dr Fathi Tarada, managing director at fire safety consultancy Mosen, said that although partial installation could be effective, there were various general risks for councils to consider before approving it.
“You have to be aware of what you’re getting into,” he said. “If you have two flats adjacent to each other with a compartment wall between them but over the years lots of holes have been drilled in it, then it’s not really functioning as a compartment wall. If you then have a fire in the flat [not protected by a sprinkler system] then that may overwhelm the capacity of the sprinkler in the protected flat.
“If a fire gets too big then sprinklers can become very ineffective; they need to operate very early on to suppress a fire. Experiments show they can be very ineffective at later stages of a fire.”
He added that a blaze could potentially spread through open windows, and added that fire response procedures and advice could be complicated by flats having different levels of protection.
He called for more fire-testing of the effectiveness of partial sprinkler systems.
“I am a great believer in sprinkler systems – with the right compartmentation and management and evacuation responses in place then it’s better to have half a cup than no cup,” he said.
“In some cases partial installation is an option, but I would only recommend it after a full survey and due consideration.”
Tamworth Borough Council hopes to start work installing sprinklers in its towers towards the end of this year.
A Department for Communities and Local Government spokesperson said: “It is for individual building owners to decide what the appropriate fire safety measures are for their buildings informed by guidance from their own professional advisors.”
Inside Housing’s Never Again campaign calls on government to fund the retrofitting of sprinklers in tower blocks across the UK.
Inside Housing is calling for immediate action to implement the learning from the Lakanal House fire, and a commitment to act – without delay – on learning from the Grenfell Tower tragedy as it becomes available.
We will submit evidence from our research to the Grenfell public inquiry.
The inquiry should look at why opportunities to implement learning that could have prevented the fire were missed, in order to ensure similar opportunities are acted on in the future.