Only 2% of UK social housing tower blocks have a full sprinkler system, figures released under freedom of information have revealed on the eve of the public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire.
The request by BBC Breakfast related to half of the tower blocks owned by councils and housing associations across the UK. It found that just one in 50 had full sprinkler systems and only one in three had more than one staircase though which residents could be evacuated.
The findings prompted a call by the London fire chief for the Grenfell inquiry to recommend retrofitting of sprinklers to all social housing blocks.
The London fire brigade commissioner, Dany Cotton, who led the emergency response to the fire in which about 80 people died, said: “Grenfell should be a turning point. I support retrofitting – for me, where you can save one life then it’s worth doing.
“This can’t be optional, it can’t be a ‘nice to have’ – this is something that must happen.”
Graham Tomlin, the bishop of Kensington, backed Cotton’s call.
The public inquiry into the Grenfell fire, chaired by retired judge Martin Moore-Bick, will open on Thursday.
Cotton said that if the inquiry did not recommend the retrofitting of sprinklers to tower blocks she would be “very disappointed”.
In 2007, sprinklers were made compulsory in new-build high rises over 30 metres tall in England, but there is no requirement for retrofitting to older properties.
Following the death of six people in the Lakanal House fire in south London in 2009, a coroner recommended that the government should encourage housing providers to retrofit sprinkler systems. Since the Grenfell fire ministers were widely criticised for sitting on the coroner’s recommendations.
Terry McDermott, the chief fire officer of Derbyshire fire and rescue service and chair of the national fire sprinkler network, said: “Sprinklers are the most effective way of suppressing or extinguishing fire.”
He cited research into 2,294 fires in buildings fitted with sprinklers that found that more than 90% of fires were either controlled or extinguished by the devices.
A spokesman for the Department for Communities and Local Government said: “Following the Grenfell Tower tragedy, the government established a comprehensive building safety programme to ensure a fire like this can never happen again.
“This included commissioning an independent review of building regulations and fire safety. We will consider this issue in light of the recommendations of this review and the findings of the public inquiry.”
The BBC questioned 56 local authorities and housing associations in towns and cities and received responses relating to about half of the UK’s estimated 4,000 tower blocks.