Should Scottish homes have sprinkler systems?

Written by on 5 June 2015

It is incomprensible that someone, somewhere inside the Scottish Parliament didn’t realise the irony. The Scottish Fire Sprinkler Coordination Group last month came to Holyrood as part of efforts to raise awareness among MSPs. Their lunchtime event was held in Committee Room 1, which, as it happens, is now more commonly known as the Robert Burns room. 

It was perhaps a sign that efforts around fire prevention, as much as ever, are set to stand out. There were 28 fire deaths in the first five months of this year. To put that in context, there were just five more deaths from fires throughout Scotland in the entire 12 months through to March last year. 

It is this surge that last week led Scottish fire and rescue chiefs to issue a plea for the public to put them in touch with those who are at greatest risk, whether it be individuals who are living alone, suffer physical and mental health conditions, or have issues involving the misuse of alcohol or drugs. 

Almost 12 years ago now, a member’s bill was brought forward that, if introduced, would have required the installation of fire sprinklers in a range of properties. The MSP behind the proposed legislation was none other than the current Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Michael Matheson. 

The bill was later withdrawn after the then Labour-Lib Dem Scottish Executive agreed to incorporate many of Matheson’s proposals via new fire regulations that compelled fire sprinklers in the likes of residential homes and sheltered housing.

Doing so in new domestic properties – in other words, houses and flats – could not be justified on account of cost. Indeed, a subsequent report commissioned by the Scottish Government in 2009 concluded that the installation of sprinklers in all new Scottish homes would not be cost-effective. Certain councils such as Fife and Angus have gone ahead regardless in seeking to install fire sprinklers in all new homes. 

Ministers commissioned a further cost-benefit analysis on residential sprinklers last year, findings from which are due to be published “very soon”, Minister for Community Safety, Paul Wheelhouse, told MSPs a little over two weeks ago. Assistant Chief Officer Lewis Ramsay, SFRS director of prevention and protection, will not need much convincing.

“We are on the cusp of some movement towards finding solutions to domestic sprinklers which are cost-effective, which can be installed to a standard and can be targeted to people who need them most,” he told me last month. “I actually think that Scotland can lead on that.”

Given properties such as care homes and schools are now all fitted with sprinklers, Ramsay sees it as a “very logical step that we start to look at retrospective fitting within the homes of vulnerable people and allow it to become the choice that people can make in terms of installed safety equipment within their own homes”.

The exact way in which Scotland would go about that is another matter. Wales has gone down the legislative route and, as such, every new build must have a sprinkler system installed. Last November, Wheelhouse said government had no plans to consult or introduce legislation around mandatory installation in new homes. Last month, he gave an assurance that ministers will “study closely” what happens in Wales. They are unlikely to be the only ones. 

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