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Detention centre fire triggers sprinkler row

NEWS

BUILDING REGULATIONS should be redrafted to provide for sprinklers in timber clad buildings, fire chiefs said this week after a blaze gutted a Bedfordshire asylum seekers centre.

They also urged the Immigration Service to review its decision not to install sprinklers at the Yarl's Wood detention centre, which opened less than three months ago to house up to 900 people.

Bedfordshire & Luton Fire Service had campaigned at the planning stage for sprinklers for the centre because of the large quantities of timber cladding, and it is claimed that these would have controlled the spread of the fire.

'The Immigration Service has announced it will be holding a full investigation into this serious disturbance. I would urge them to investigate why sprinklers were not installed in this building as part of the new development, ' said Chief & Assistant Chief Fire Officers Association's (CACFOA) policy safety and standards director Ken Knight.

The fire started in the reception area at around 8pm on 14 February as a riot broke out in the complex.

By 9pm eight fire engines had the fire under control. But by 11pm a new fire had started in the main accommodation block.

Fuelled by the timber cladding, by 2.30am 75% of the occupied half of the complex was ablaze.

The fire was not finally extinguished until 11am on Friday.

The centre was built under an £80M, six year design, construct, operate and maintain contract awarded to Amey in joint venture with security firm Group 4 in September 2000.

The scheme was exempt from the normal planning process under a Home Office Special Urgency Procedure, which bypassed local consultation and reduced the role of the local council, police and fire brigade to consultees. The council also had no powers to reject designs.

'We campaigned for sprinklers because the complex had detainees who may or may not want to be there, and because of the quantities of timber involved, ' said retired chief fire officer Mike Freeman, who led the Bedfordshire & Luton Fire Service at the time.

'The government has proudly defended Yarl's Wood, saying that it was built in accordance with the Building Regulations, so this just goes to show that the Building Regulations are wrong.

'Timber buildings without sprinklers is just suicide. It is as strong as that, ' Freeman said.

The Home Office defended its approach: 'Advice was sought from a wide range of fire safety experts, ' it said in a statement.

'Options were evaluated and a package of systems and contingencies put in place. Sprinklers were not part of this package - it is true that sprinklers were recommended by some of the experts but not by others.

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