Historic Suffolk village’s fears of fire spark safety operation - Action timely as 15th century pub hit by blaze

Pictured The Swan in Lavenham. Story by Anglia Press Agency.  ENGANL00120130417091030
Pictured The Swan in Lavenham. Story by Anglia Press Agency. ENGANL00120130417091030
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Fears by residents in Lavenham over fire dangers in their historic village have sparked off a county-wide operation to check every fire hydrant in Suffolk properly - all 17,000 of them.

The community - population just 1,500 - boasts almost three hundred ancient timber-framed buildings and its residents are more concerned than most about the dangers of fire.

But there was shock and alarm after a survey revealed that official checks on the village’s 57 fire hydrants did not actually test that the water pipes actually work.

Now the influential Lavenham Society has persuaded the county council to test them properly every three years - and step up similar checks on thousands of other hydrants across the county.

The move is timely for the village - earlier this week six fire engines were sent to the historic Swan Hotel in the High Street after reports of a chimney fire. Crews found the main dining room full of smoke and evacuated all guests and staff from the building before tackling the flames.

Most of the properties in Lavenham - often described as the finest medieval village of its kind in the country - were built in the 15th and 16th century long before the use of fire-retardant materials and safety sprinklers. And roof voids between adjoining houses in many streets are not divided which means that a fire would spread rapidly through a terrace of properties.

Using a Freedom of Information request the society discovered that the county council’s checks were inadequate - the distinctive hydrants - all marked “H” in yellow - were only checked visually and not actually turned on to see if they worked.

The Society insisted that under guidance issued nationally, every hydrant should be “wet-tested” to ensure it works - because water valves not used for any length of time have a tendency to seize up.

But now thanks to the village’s concerns a new and more rigorous testing programme is to be introduced across the whole county.

Society spokesman Richard Morgan said:”We wanted to highlight the enhanced fire risk in Lavenham due to its high proportion of medieval timber-framed buildings, many strung together in long terraces, and with limited fire separation between them.

“We discussed it and no-one could remember seeing an hydrant being tested - even though water authorities say they should be turned on and checked regularly.

“We also pointed out to the County Council that the manufacturers maintenance instructions - for hydrants all over the world - require them to be checked and turned on regularly.

It is almost certainly a case of something being overlooked rather than a deliberate policy to save money - you cannot put a price on public safety especially when it comes to a risk of fire.

“We put forward the same argument in the recent county’s Fire Service Consultation as part of the argument to retain two full-size fire appliances in Sudbury, and not the reduction of one being replaced by a small response vehicle.”

Suffolk County Council’s cabinet member for environment and public protection, Matthew Hicks said: “Carrying out periodic safety checks of all fire and rescue equipment and water points in the community is an essential part of ensuring we have access to what we need when incidents occur.

“Following our recent checks in Lavenham, we have decided to carry out checks on all 17,000 fire water points in the county every three years.”

Anglia Press Agency.