While people normally think of smoke detectors and alarm systems when the topic of fire prevention is raised, fire suppression equipment plays a role of equal if not greater importance in the prevention of tragic disasters in residential settings.

Battery-powered smoke alarms have already become a near ubiquitous feature of residential and commercial properties around Australia, particularly following the introduction of legislation in certain states, such as Victoria, mandating their installation in all homes, units, flats and townhouses.

Smoke alarms serve as a highly effective means of detecting fires long before they reach unmanageable proportions, and alerting building occupants. The spread of the technology has also made the devices extremely cheap, retailing for as little as US$20.00 for a bare basic detection system.

For large-scale communal facilities, such as student dormitories and retirement homes, more thorough and effective fire prevention measures should be adopted, given the fact that they house a greater number of residents at a higher density. The increased number of building occupants can hamper evacuation and rescue efforts – a problem which is even more pronounced in retirement facilities, where many residents may suffer from limited mobility.

This makes fire suppression equipment essential for such large-scale residential complexes, enabling the building system itself to not only alert occupants to the presence of a potential fire hazard, but to extinguish any incipient blazes themselves before they become perilous.

Far and away the most common form of automatic suppression equipment is the sprinkler. During the period from 2007 to 2011, they comprised 95 per cent of automatic suppression equipment present during structural fires, achieving a reduction in  damage of 57 per cent.

The need for fire suppression in addition to smoke detectors is exemplified by a blaze which destroyed a US college dormitory in 2007. The eight-unit building in Rhoda Island was equipped with a hardwired smoke detection unit for the detection of fires, yet lacked a sprinkler system of actually dealing with fire itself.

The result was the destruction of the entire building, valued at US$500,000, and contents worth US$150,000, as well as injuries to two civilians and three firefighters.

Regulators in Australia have recognised the indispensable role of fire suppression systems for residential facilities housing the elderly and vulnerable, particularly in the wake of a tragic fire that consumed a nursing home in the Sydney suburb of Quaker Hill in November 2011, leaving a total of 11 people dead.

On January 1, 2013 NSW made the retrofitting of automatic sprinkling systems in nursing homes mandatory, requiring that they meet the Building Code of Australia’s national standard for sprinklers in newly built aged care facilities.

Victoria and Queensland have already instituted similar requirements, with groups such as the Council of the Ageing calling for fire suppression systems to be made mandatory for nursing homes throughout Australia.