Recent reports that detail the origin of the deadly Grenfell Tower fire in London suggest that an automatic fire sprinkler system could have prevented the tragedy. According to the London police, the fire that killed at least 79 individuals on June 14th started in a refrigerator within a 4th story apartment, then spread to the building’s combustible exterior cladding. If an automatic fire sprinkler system had been installed in the building, it would have been expected to intervene and prevent the fire from reaching the building exterior.

Most large fire disasters involve some type of code violation or human error, and the Grenfell Tower fire may be no exception. Much attention is being focused on the fact that the aluminum-clad panels used on the exterior of the building contained a combustible plastic core. Although the aluminum cladding was intended to prevent casual ignition of the panels, the exposure from the fire inside the building reportedly ignited the exterior assembly, causing the fire to spread rapidly.

However, according to fire protection engineer Russ Fleming, who serves as the managing director of the International Fire Sprinkler Association (IFSA), “automatic fire sprinkler systems have a unique ability to make up for a wide range of other fire deficiencies.” He points out that in the 1990s, the U.S. General Services Administration asked the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to study the capabilities of automatic fire sprinkler systems and the level of protection that could be expected. NIST reported back three fundamental capabilities.  The first was the ability to prevent the room of fire origin from proceeding to flashover, a phenomenon in which all combustibles are ignited.  The second was the ability of sprinklers to limit a fire to a maximum size not exceeding 1 MW, roughly the peak burning rate of a single upholstered chair.  The third was the ability of sprinklers to prevent flames from leaving the room of fire origin. Fleming notes that “If an automatic fire sprinkler system had been in place to intervene, the Grenfell Tower fire should never have reached the building exterior.” This view is supported by a report on combustible exterior cladding published in 2014 by the Fire Protection Research Foundation, which contained the statement  “It is concluded that sprinkler systems are likely to have an effect on the risk of interior fires spreading to the external wall to become exterior wall fires.”

The capability of automatic fire sprinkler systems is now being recognized in the UK in the aftermath of the Grenfell fire tragedy.  Although the national government has not yet acted, individual towns and cities have already announced plans to retrofit their public housing tower blocks with sprinkler systems.  These include Birmingham (213 tower blocks), Croydon (25 tower blocks), Sheffield (24 tower blocks) and Stoke-on-Trent (16 tower blocks). While it is an unfortunate fact of fire protection that progress is most often made in the wake of tragedies, the IFSA applauds the action of these communities for their decisive move toward improved safety for their citizens.