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Black Country flats still without sprinklers two years on from Grenfell fire

By Richard Guttridge | Dudley | Property | Published:

No action has been taken to fit council-managed flats with sprinklers, more than two years on from the Grenfell Tower fire.

No action has been taken to fit council-managed tower blocks with sprinklers in the Black Country two years after the Grenfell blaze

Tower blocks across the region are not fully fitted out with sprinklers.

Plans are being developed in Wolverhampton as part of a £58 million infrastructure programme, but work has yet to start.

Sandwell Council has launched a review, but other authorities have no immediate plans to consider fitting sprinklers.

Fire experts say sprinklers save lives and are the most effective measure to tackle fires in high-rise blocks.

Becci Bryant, Staffordshire’s chief fire officer, believes all councils should be taking action to install sprinklers

Wolverhampton Council manages 37 blocks, Dudley 21 and Sandwell 55. Most tower blocks in Walsall are managed by housing provider whg.

Councils in Wolverhampton and Dudley said sprinklers were fitted above bin stores, considered the most likely area for a fire to start, in 2013, meaning there have been no measures taken since the Grenfell fire in which 72 people died.

Wolverhampton Council was, however, one of the first to announce it planned to retrofit sprinklers, despite the multi-million cost, for the safety of tenants.

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Sandwell Council is considering the move, but Dudley Council says there is no legal requirement to fit sprinklers. Walsall’s whg says it relies on an extensive network of CCTV in its flats.

The details were provided following a Freedom of Information request by the Express & Star.

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Still no sign of firefighter in the room

Experts say they are like having a firefighter in the room.

Anyone in any doubt about the importance of sprinklers only has to look at the devastation caused by the recent blaze that ripped through the Holiday Inn next to the M6.

They might also want to consider this fact: no-one has ever died in a fire in a home fitted with residential sprinklers.

The aftermath of the Holiday Inn fire next to the M6

The anti-fire devices were not fitted at the Holiday Inn in Walsall, despite advice from experts. The result was utter devastation as flames tore through and destroyed the hotel.

Armed with evidence of just how effective they are at fighting fires, it may seem a no-brainer.

But despite this, council-managed tower blocks in the Black Country are not fully fitted out with sprinklers.

Seventy two people died in the Grenfell Tower fire

Some have sprinklers in bin stores, considered the most likely spot for a fire to start, and communal areas but they are not in rooms and corridors – and no extra measures have been added since the Grenfell Tower disaster in 2017.

Experts claim if sprinklers were fitted at Grenfell the 72 lives lost could have been saved.

Becci Bryant, chief fire officer in Staffordshire is unequivocal. She says sprinklers save lives and are “like having a firefighter in the room”.

In an ideal world, councils and housing associations would have sprinklers in every home and indeed many new-build blocks will feature the crucial safety feature.

The difficulty arises, like many things, with cost. Sprinklers are not cheap to install in so many high-rise flats. It is also a major undertaking to retrofit sprinklers in old blocks dating back to the mid-20th century.

Council plans

Wolverhampton Council has been one of the most proactive, pledging to do just that, but it’s something that will take time as part of a five-year programme.

Sandwell Council too has said it looking at sprinkler options, though has not committed to fitting them in all blocks.

Walsall Housing Group said it does not have sprinklers in any high-rise blocks as bosses are “confident” about the current safety systems in place.

Dudley Council says the law does not require sprinklers to be fitted but that chiefs take safety very seriously.

Chief fire officer Ms Bryant said: “We have been lobbying councils and housing associations to have sprinklers retrofitted for a number of years. We really want to bust some of the myths around these systems.

"For example most people think that if one sprinkler head activates, they all activate, that is not the case, they activate individually based on where a fire is located.

"There is also a lot of concern around the cost however when you weigh up the cost of having a serious fire in a property there is no comparison.”

Councillor Joanne Hadley, cabinet member for homes at Sandwell Council, said: “As part of the ongoing review of our fire prevention strategy we are looking at the technical options such as types of sprinkler systems, their accreditation and suitability for our particular buildings. This assessment is being done alongside a review of each block to determine where sprinkler installation would be most appropriate.”

A Wolverhampton Council spokesman said: “Since the Grenfell disaster we have carried out a thorough review of our council tower blocks.

“As part of our commitment to fire safety and to provide residents with peace of mind, we are fitting sprinklers in the flats and throughout all the main communal areas.

“This is a major piece of work, and a £58 million infrastructure programme has been developed by Wolverhampton Homes, which will see new and improved fire safety measures also put in place in all blocks.”

Walsall’s whg’s Paul Dockerill said: “We do not have sprinkler systems in any of our high rise blocks, because we are confident of the safety features we already have. These include CCTV, fire alarm equipment and smoke and heat detectors, along with joint visits with the fire service to all 17 blocks every six months..”

Dudley Council cabinet member Laura Taylor said: “There is no legislation or requirement for authorities to have sprinklers in high rise blocks.

“We do take fire safety very seriously, however.

“And we are currently undertaking a review of our major flatted estates which will include consideration of future investment options.”

'What's the price of a life?'

Residents in Lincoln House, a nine-storey high-rise building on Tremont Street in the Heath Town estate of Wolverhampton, have called on the council to install sprinklers in their building.

Lincoln House sits next door to another tower block, Tremont House, which are two of 37 in the city that stand without sprinklers.

Stephen Wardley outside Lincoln House in Heath Town, Wolverhampton

Stephen Wardley lives in Lincoln House and is worried for the safety of the pensioners living there.

The 52-year-old said: “I know it costs the council money, but what’s the price on a life? I’ve lived here three years, and on the estate all my life, and never had sprinklers.

“With all the uproar with Grenfell, they should be put in. I don’t worry about myself as much, but it’s the pensioners here that I worry for. I think it’s the cost.

"Speaking to the council is like speaking to a brick wall – whatever it costs they should put them in.

“They would definitely help if there was a fire where we live.

“You don’t think about it until there’s another fire on the news, but they would definitely help if something happens. The council should put them in, especially with old people here”

Graham Dearn, aged 66, added: “These are old buildings, with old people in that can’t get out easily, they should be put in to save lives.

“We have good alarms but it’s the extra safety that makes you feel better.”

Trevor Westney’s daughter lived in Grenfell Tower a year before the tragic fire and believes it could happen again closer to home without sprinklers.

The 73-year-old said: “Smoke alarms go off in this building all the time and people don’t go out and check, they just assume its someone burning toast.

“Attitudes need to change first, people need to take it seriously, if something happens then they blame the council, but people could prevent it in the first place.

“My daughter Rebecca moved out of Grenfell a year before the fire – we know what could happen if it goes wrong, and it’ll happen again if things don’t change.”

Richard Guttridge

By Richard Guttridge
Investigations Editor - @RichG_star

Investigations Editor for the Express & Star.

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