Grenfell Tower Tragedy Proves Need For Fire Sprinklers In High-rises

The International Fire Sprinkler Association points out that automatic fire sprinkler systems are the single most effective fire protection measure available.

The Grenfell Tower residential high-rise fire that killed at least 12 residents in London on June 14 and injured more than 70 others reinforces the need for fire sprinklers in high-rise buildings including the retrofit of these existing fire hazards.

fire sprinklers Grenfell Tower
Photo: Natalie Oxford

While all the details of the fire tragedy are not yet known, the International Fire Sprinkler Association (IFSA) points out that automatic fire sprinkler systems are the single most effective fire protection measure available, and are able to make up for a wide range of other fire protection deficiencies. There has never been a multiple loss of life from a fire developing in a building protected by a properly designed, installed, and maintained fire sprinkler system.

“Our question at this point is for decision makers, especially those who made the choice to not include fire sprinklers when improvements were made in the building last year,” explains Bruce LaRue, Chair of IFSA. “Fire sprinklers minimize the impact fires like this one have on people, property, pets, and the community. Fires like this shouldn’t grow to this magnitude because the technology exists to keep fire small and allow occupants to escape and firefighters time to set up and keep it under control.”

Alan Brinson, Executive Director of the London-based European Fire Sprinkler Network, stated “While fire sprinkler systems have been required in new high-rise residential buildings in England since 2007, we are still lacking legislation that would provide fire safety in existing buildings of this type.”

Why are fire sprinkler systems not being installed in these types of existing buildings? The uninformed answer is usually that it would cost too much. However, reality is that in 2012 the British Automatic Fire Sprinkler Association (BAFSA) commissioned a report on the economics of fire sprinkler retrofit in residential apartment blocks of this type. The study concluded that fire sprinklers could be retrofitted with tenants in place at a cost of about £1150 (about $1,466) per flat. Since the 24-story Grenfell Tower contained 120 flats, BAFSA reports that a fire sprinkler system could have been installed for less than 2 percent of the £10 million ($12.7 million) spent on refurbishment of the tower just last year, money that was wasted considering that the tower now appears to be a total loss.

The BAFSA report, Safer High-Rise Living, the Callow Mount Sprinkler Retrofit Project, can be accessed online.

Some suggest that individuals living in high-rise buildings experiencing a fire are safer to stay within their units than attempt to evacuate through smoke-filled corridors and stairways. However, it was obvious in the Grenfell fire that the extensive exterior fire spread made that impossible, and responding firefighters urged rapid evacuation.

Although fire sprinkler systems are not designed to control or extinguish exterior fires, experience has shown that they can play a major role in providing fire safety during such events. In both the Monte Carlo casino hotel fire in Las Vegas in 2008 and the Sulafa Dubai residential high-rise fire in Dubai in 2017, individual sprinklers activated to prevent the exterior fires from entering the building, and no fire deaths took place.

The IFSA expressed its sympathy for the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire, and calls upon British authorities to revisit the issue of fire safety in existing high-rise buildings, specifically to consider a program for fire sprinkler retrofit of high-rise occupancies.