We Didn’t Start The Fire (But We Didn’t Try To Prevent It Either)

The Story

Residents, Lichfield Street Blocks, Tamworth  - image from TamworthHerald.co.uk

Residents, Lichfield Street Blocks, Tamworth – image from TamworthHerald.co.uk

In March 2014, the Tamworth Herald reported that leaseholders at the Lichfield Street high-rise blocks in Tamworth had vowed to fight Tamworth Borough Council’s plan to install an automatic sprinkler system – an installation, the Herald reports, which some residents say they do not even want.

Leaseholder Opposition

The primary objection reported is that of the cost, the Council reportedly asking £3100 of each of the 40 leaseholders in the blocks (Tamworth Borough Council plans to spend over £1million installing the automatic sprinkler systems: this will cover 348 flats).

According to the British Automatic Fire Sprinkler Association (BAFSA) report Safer High Rise Living: The Callow Mount Retrofit Project, sprinkler systems could be retrofitted to an existing high-rise block in Sheffield for only £1,150 per flat. Using this cost – an average-estimate, yes, but a professional one we can work with – the cost of fitting automatic sprinkler systems to all 348 flats in the Lichfield Street blocks would cost just over £400,000. This is far below the reported £1million the Council are looking at spending; perhaps the leaseholders are justified in their objection?

It is one thing for residents to be angry about the cost of installation; different funding sources, payment plans, procurement options, etc. are surely possible. One might imagine that were the leaseholders receiving the sprinklers ‘free of charge’, like the council residents within the block, they might not object so vociferously. However, the leaseholders appear to demonstrate an absolute opposition, regardless of cost:

“I am totally against these sprinklers regardless of whether I have to pay.” – Resident of Lichfield Street blocks, Tamworth

Their objections include:

“Any technology can malfunction…I’d be worried about flooding” – Resident, Anonymous

True, any technology can malfunction, but high-rise blocks will already have pipes carrying water through the block to each individual flat – worrying about flooding from a fire sprinkler system is like worrying about flooding because your home has working taps and a shower.

“What if they go off by accident, who’s going to pay for the damage? – Resident, Evelyn Hill

BAFSA state not only that it is only fire sprinkler heads in the immediate vicinity of a fire that actually operate, but that sprinklers do not ‘false alarm’ – they will only operate if there is an actual fire.

“There is no legal requirement to install sprinkler systems in old buildings, it is just for new builds” – Resident, Stan Turner

The legal requirement for the installation of automatic sprinkler systems does just apply to new residential blocks, but retrofitting existing high-rise must surely be a consideration – no-one wants to see a repeat of Lakanal. I will address this objection in more detail later.

“Residents say that under the terms of their leases they need only pay for structural defects and repairs, not for new work.” – Tamworth Herald

Leases are notoriously complicated documents, but generally speaking leaseholders are responsible for their own property and the landlord is responsible for the fabric of the building in which the property is located, i.e. the block itself, including walls, roofs, communal lighting, etc. (Where repair work is performed on a block, affected leaseholders are obliged to contribute toward the cost.)

This objection is harder to comment on, at least regarding the details. If a high-rise block were built without emergency lighting in the communal stairwells, we would consider that a gross and potentially fatal omission, which is to say defect. Might we not consider the absence of automatic sprinkler systems in the same way? Difficulty arises in how sprinkler systems enter each dwelling – crossing the leaseholder threshold that separates ‘my home, my responsibility’ from ‘landlord’s building, landlord’s responsibility’ – but piping and electronics to allow sprinklers to work must be installed across the block at large; would the lease cover such installations?

Ultimately, the reported arguments against fire sprinkler installation are either unfounded or, in the case of legal / lease arguments, can be expressed as emotive “I shouldn’t have to have it!” / “I don’t want it!” statements. Having bought the lease to their home, you might have sympathy with the leaseholders’ position – we should all entitled to the ‘quiet enjoyment’ of our own home without imposition from others…

…but that isn’t necessarily true. The leaseholders own their homes – to the extent a lease affords – but those 40 leaseholders share the fabric of their building, the high-rise blocks themselves, with over 300 council residents. They cannot escape this co-location or the inherent responsibilities it entails. As such, we must now consider…

The Moral Argument

If I live in a detached or otherwise isolated property, then the risk to not install preventative measures such as smoke alarms or sprinkler systems only really affects me; if my home were to catch fire, it is unlikely to spread beyond the grounds of my land due to the isolated nature of my dwelling.

If my property is semi-detached or, say, a maisonette – a much more fitting analogy, given we are talking about leaseholders – then a potential fire not only threatens me, but my neighbour as well; if a fire were to begin in my home, it is much more likely to affect and even spread to the adjoined property.

When weighing up the risk, I must now not only consider my own well-being, but whether I am prepared for another person to bear the devastating consequences of a fire – consequences which, no matter the origin of this imaginary inferno, I am now tacitly responsible for, my previous inaction having greatly increased the probability of that fire occurring.

The potential loss of life and property, not to mention the impact on family – for fire cares not for the cruel irony of how it might have been extinguished by the many tears shed in its wake – is now multiplied. The risk can no longer be shouldered alone, at least not with good moral conscience; we have revealed a new moral duty that we are now beholden to.

The above scenario considers only a single other property be affected by our decision. In a high-rise block, where all properties are necessarily connected by infrastructure, the risk to not do all that is possible to prevent fires from occurring and spreading now ripples out to all dwellings within the block, a potential hundredfold multiplication in damage, loss, and pain.

Safety First

Taxi drivers are now required by law to ensure their customers use seatbelts. That the drivers might own their car is not relevant – they have a legal and moral duty to their passengers to ensure that all appropriate preventative measures are used to protect against loss of life; it is their responsibility. I would argue the Lichfield Street block leaseholders likewise have a moral responsibility to their neighbours…one they appear not to be considering.

You may now, astutely, ask whether sprinklers are an appropriate preventative measure?

Current legislation requires that new residential blocks over 30m high must be fitted with sprinklers – that this is a requirement, and not a suggestion, should speak volumes as to the system’s appropriateness. True, the Lichfield Street blocks are not new-build properties – the residents raise this very point, as we saw earlier – but Building Regulation guidance recognises not only that the use of fire sprinkler systems is for life safety, but that future legislation will call for the increased use of sprinklers. Fire sprinklers are proven to save lives: it is estimated that, since the late 1990’s, 35 lives have been saved by such systems, not to mention saving the lives of fire fighters dealing with such terrifying blazes. Indeed, according to BAFSA there have been no multiple fire deaths in the UK as a result of a fire in a dwelling with a working sprinkler system – argument enough for their appropriateness.

The Burning Question

In April 2014, the Tamworth Herald reported that while Councillor Danny Cook believes the decision to fit fire sprinklers in the Lichfield Street blocks is the morally correct thing to do, Tamworth Borough Council would not force tenants to pay for the works:

“We will either pay for it ourselves or we will give them the choice of whether they want sprinklers going in there.” – Cllr. Danny Cook

I can make my peace with the first option; I am uneasy about the second. It is not just the council that has a duty to protect their properties; the residents have a duty too. In refusing to have sprinklers installed the leaseholders would be putting the lives of everyone in the block at risk of a high-rise fire that might otherwise be prevented.

The UK’s Lakanal and Shirley Tower tragedies show that landlords must act on fire risks; further, I have argued that leaseholders have a moral duty to allow the installation of appropriate fire prevention measures. I sincerely hope Tamworth Borough Council finds a way to install a sprinkler system in all properties at the Lichfield Street blocks…and I strongly urge the affected leaseholders to cooperate toward this resolution.

References

Safer High Rise Living: The Callow Mount Retrofit Project, British Automatic Fire Sprinkler Association (BAFSA), 2012

Seat Belts: Law, ROSPA, Online: http://www.rospa.com/roadsafety/adviceandinformation/vehiclesafety/in-carsafetycrash-worthiness/seat-belt-law.aspx, Available: April 2014 (their responsibility)

Sprinkler Information – Domestic and Residential Sprinklers, British Automatic Fire Sprinkler Association, Online: http://www.bafsa.org.uk/sprinkler-information/domestic-residential-sprinklers.php, Available: April 2014

Sprinkler Information – Legislation, British Automatic Fire Sprinkler Association, Online: http://www.bafsa.org.uk/sprinkler-information/legislation.php, Available April: 2014 (life safety)

Tamworth high-rise flats residents won’t have to pay for sprinklers, Tamworth Herald, Online: http://www.tamworthherald.co.uk/High-rise-residents-won-t-pay-sprinklers/story-20939665-detail/story.html, Available: April 2014

Tamworth Residents vow to blocks sprinklers at high rise flats in protest at £3,100 bills, Tamworth Herald, Online: http://www.tamworthherald.co.uk/Furious-residents-vow-block-sprinklers-protest/story-20811066-detail/story.html, Available: March 2014

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