Innovating within the Fire Industry: A Standard Problem
Why misinformation about the standards and their purpose, limit the adoption of new life saving technology
With a background in innovation design engineering, and as an outsider stepping into the fire protection industry ten years ago, I was shocked by the lack of transformative innovation. If you look back at the original patent for the first practical fire sprinkler invented in 1882 by Grinnell you will see a deflector, which diffuses the water into a uniform spray pattern to suppress fires underneath. This led to the 1890 invention of the glass disc sprinkler, which is essentially the same as the design which is commonplace today.
The lack of transformative innovation in my view, is in part due to the brilliance of Grinnell’s design and its successes in the industrial sector, but also the nature of the fire sprinkler industry and the ‘standards framework’ it was built upon.
What are standards and what is their purpose?
A standard is an agreed way of doing something. Standards began with the BSI Group in 1901 as the Engineering Standards Committee, led by James Mansergh, to standardise the number and type of steel sections in order to make British manufacturers more efficient and competitive.
Within the UK residential and domestic active fire suppression industry the most commonly referred to standard is BS9252, which was written in 2005. The scope of BS9252 is clearly defined in its first section, ‘...the requirements for the construction and performance of sprinklers which are operated by a change of state of an element or bursting of a glass bulb under the influence of heat...’. And its objective in the introduction, ‘detect and control a fire at an early stage of development and activate an alarm...rapidly reduce the rate of production of heat and smoke, allowing more time for the occupants to escape to safety or be rescued.’
The document provides a reliable basis for people to share the same expectations about glass bulb sprinklers and a prescriptive recipe for design, installation, components, water supplies and backflow protection, commissioning, maintenance and testing.
It is an invaluable tool because all manufacturers and designers have to do is follow the recipe and they can be confident that the resulting system will provide the performance assessed when the standard was created. Similarly, Authorities Having Jurisdiction (AHJs), the individuals tasked with enforcing the requirements of building regulations and approving means of escape strategies, can shortcut the assessment process and leverage the hard work done to produce the standard. This is why one of the most commonly asked questions by AHJs assessing an active fire suppression system is ‘does it meet the standard?’.
The issue with this approach is the scrutiny work completed to create the standard and the assumptions embedded within it are often hard to find. Transparency of this information would better help the AHJ understand what ‘fit for purpose’ means and share the detailed knowledge of the objectives. This is useful because it also communicates that there are many ways to achieve the same objectives.
Standards ring-fence traits specific to the technology. Benchmarking the good, but also the bad performance, this invariably causes a bias when evaluating all new active fire suppression systems to the qualities of the technology of incumbent established manufacturers.
Dame Judith Hackitt recently made a number of recommendations to reform UK building regulations in the wake of lessons learned from the tragic Grenfell Tower fire, stating:
'Prescriptive regulation and guidance are not helpful in designing and building complex buildings, especially in an environment where building technology and practices continue to evolve, and will prevent those undertaking building work from taking responsibility for their actions...An outcomes-based framework requires people who are part of the system to be competent, to think for themselves rather than blindly following guidance, and to understand their responsibilities to deliver and maintain safety and integrity throughout the life cycle of a building.'
Alternative active fire suppression systems (AFSS) can reduce the risk of deaths and injuries in ways that cannot be achieved with sprinklers.
Focusing on the problem and desired outcome
Numerous studies show that the people most at risk of unintentional death due to fires in dwellings are the most vulnerable groups of society, individuals who cannot self evacuate from fire, or who are elderly or disabled.
In order to reduce the number of unintentional fire deaths in dwellings, prevention measures will need to be carefully targeted at the vulnerable groups identified. This task represents a considerable challenge since many of the high-risk groups represent those members of the community that are the most difficult to reach. To be effective such measures will also require an inter agency approach between the local authority services, charities and the fire brigade to help inform and protect those most at risk.
We should be looking for new solutions to complement the old ones, and admit that one size does not fit all. The variation in requirements is wide-ranging and we need to keep up with how quickly we are changing how we live in our homes and the associated fire risks. The intention of standards like BS9252 was not to limit competition by defining the only way a product can perform.
The exploration of new technology is a fundamental part of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order, which states:
10. Where the responsible person implements any preventive and protective measures he must do so on the basis of the principles specified in Part 3 of Schedule 1.
Part 3 of Schedule 1 states under Article 10: PRINCIPLES OF PREVENTION
(d) adapting to technical progress;
There is compelling evidence that innovation can contribute to improving fire safety for all. Prescriptive guidance and defined product standards serve a valuable purpose, but moving towards performance-based design standards, which define the objective and not the method of achieving them is much needed. Indeed, it was this thinking that allowed the standardised sprinkler to become commonplace and contribute to saving many lives worldwide.