Searching for a panacea

Sprinklers are not a panacea; that much we know. We’ve been told it so often and tell it to ourselves through some sort of habitual verbal tick so we know it must be true. But why are we repeatedly made to apologise for saying something that we only ever describe in the negative? Nobody ever says “sprinklers are a panacea”. If they did, they’d get short shrift. Although why any highly efficient, effective and life-saving measure needed framing in the negative in the first place is a mystery. Our communal self-embarrassment in refusing to rejoice in something that works is terribly British and faintly comical.

Even the Minister for Policing and the Fire Service, Nick Hurd, had to explain that he had not in fact said that sprinklers are not a panacea at a recent All Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group meeting. He was merely quoting the National Fire Chiefs Council in saying they were fed up with people starting any discussion related to fire safety by saying that sprinklers are not a panacea. Nobody says they are a panacea, says the NFCC, but everybody seems to feel obliged to say that they are NOT a panacea, even though we’re all fed up with other people saying it. The Minister empathises, is what he was trying to say before someone interrupted him by telling him to stop saying that sprinklers are not a panacea.

“Investment in research and innovation is required to develop a panoply of fire safety measures”


At this point, it is worth flagging up the fact that sprinklers can indeed be a panacea as the Business Sprinkler Alliance points out in our focus on pg 48, highlighting the impact of two supermarket fires – one premises protected by sprinklers, the other sadly not. The former blaze was extinguished in three minutes, the latter’s roof collapsed and destroyed most of the store. The supermarket will have to be rebuilt and a temporary store erected. The economic and community difference between the two could not have been starker. Tell me that didn’t amount to a panacea.

But for every occasion when a sprinkler panacea appears there’s another to shoot it down. The Ocado warehouse fire was off the charts (see pg 22). To just talk about sprinkler protection when faced with a futuristic, space age super warehouse in which 700 robots scoot around a ‘railway’ grid the size of three football pitches sitting 17 metres above the ground on one of 17 mezzanine floors, is somewhat redundant. Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service had previously noted that making an effective firefighting strategy was “very difficult”.

On the eve of an era of self-drive cars, warehouses the size of small towns and floating cities, sprinkler protection should be embraced as part of the armoury. Sadly, we are not as technologically advanced in our firefighting resourcefulness, choosing to fight robot-generated fires with humans rather than something more resilient such as, I don’t know, robots for example. Reducing risk to firefighters by utilising every tool at our disposal is a critical priority, especially coming at a time when Grenfell responders face repugnant criticism for doing nothing more than risking their lives to save others.

Investment in research and innovation is required to develop a panoply of fire safety measures. If you think that unlikely in the current environment, we should turn it on its head and challenge the developers: if you are going to create these technological wonders, you must make them as fire safe as possible in the process.

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