Oxford University leads the way on fighting fires

  • With libraries, laboratories and precious research to protect, sprinkler systems should be a key consideration for higher education institutions
  • Zurich Municipal has been working with Oxford University to manage its fire risk
  • Sprinkler systems are now protecting some of the university’s most valuable assets

“The simplest way to put it, is that it’s like having a fireman in your building with a hose, 24/7, 365 days a year”.

Zurich Fire Protection Engineer, Nick Strong, gives a straightforward answer when asked why higher education institutions should consider a sprinkler system in any new build.

Alan Ely, a Senior Risk Analyst at Zurich, goes further: “A sprinkler system should be considered for every new building, from an office to a school, but universities in particular have a huge number of different risks, everything from a library to a laboratory to a Data Centre.”

Nick adds: “You also have to consider the values at stake with universities, not just the buildings but some of the equipment in laboratories; some of it is bespoke and cannot be replaced. There’s also the reputation of the institution at stake, for example if it loses research material.”

In the past 15 years, more than 700 schools have installed sprinkler systems.

It is not hard to understand why – every year there are more than 1,000 fires on school premises, and even relatively minor incidents have the potential to cause serious disruption.

There is more work to be done, however, to get higher education institutions to do likewise.

Case study – Oxford University

Oxford University is an example of an institution that fully understands the value of a sprinkler system.

Nick and Alan have been working with the university for the past eight years, helping to ensure that some of Britain’s finest educational buildings and important research work is protected from the risk of fire.

Seven sites within the university estate are already sprinkler-protected, and further projects are in the pipeline.

The most significant project to date saw sprinklers installed in the shelving of the £26 million Book Storage Facility for the Bodleian Libraries of the University of Oxford.

Completed in 2010, the book warehouse has room for more than eight million volumes.

Nick said: “We ended up with a sprinkler system covering the whole of that bookstore, which is fantastic. It’s a very sophisticated system. Everybody within the university now understands the value of what a sprinkler system can bring to reducing the risk of fire and major interruption despite the cost!

“The university really understands risk management, and now considers sprinklers for every new building.”

Weighing up the cost

With universities facing tight budgets, cost is perhaps the single biggest reason why more institutions have not installed sprinkler systems.

It is also something of a red herring, as Nick explains: “A sprinkler system costs between 1-3% of the building costs, but losing a department or a room for a week for clearing up, compared to losing a £200 million building – there’s no comparison.”

The other key concern is water damage.

“Water damage gets raised at every single presentation I do,” says Alan.
“I always say – would you rather have a handful of ash or a wet book?”

Nick adds: “The only real risk in terms of water damage is a false activation of the sprinkler system, which is very rare (approximately 1 in 16 million), because if there’s a fire, water is not going to cause as much as damage as the fire would.

“What a lot of people don’t realise, is that the sprinkler head is the equivalent of one-tenth of a fireman’s hose, and a sprinkler system is designed to protect the area where a fire is, whereas firefighters have to be more liberal with their use of water.”

An organisation that has a portfolio of properties protected by sprinklers will present a much better insurance risk to underwriters, which may be reflected in its premium.

Greater design freedom

There are other advantages too; a building with a sprinkler system may not need as many fire doors or materials that are strongly fire resistant, and it may be possible to leave greater distances between fire escapes.

The risks presented to us on a university campus are varied and many

Alan Ely, Zurich Senior Risk Analyst

This can reduce costs and have design benefits.

“The flexibility within buildings with sprinklers is far greater”, says Nick. “You can have a larger atrium space for example, because sprinklers afford you more design freedom.”

The final advantage of a sprinkler system, of course, is that it may save lives. And that is why Nick and Alan continue to actively promote its benefits.

“We are still talking to universities and offer a free plan vetting service trying to encourage them to introduce sprinkler systems. We are getting the message out that new buildings are better protected and more resilient if a properly designed sprinkler system is installed. And it’s worth the cost!” says Alan.


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