In January of 2000, three students died as a result of a dormitory fire on the campus of Seton Hall University in South Orange, NJ. In February of 2003, 16 people in Hartford, CT, died, and in September of that same year, another 15 passed away in Nashville, TN, when fire swept through nursing home facilities in those cities. Also in February of 2003, in one of the most tragic fires in recent memory, 100 people perished in a panicked rush for the exits after a pyrotechnics display ignited soundproofing material in the walls of The Station, a nightclub in West Warwick, RI.
All four highly publicized incidents were catastrophic reminders of fire’s ever-present danger. All four had one thing in common – sprinkler systems were not present in the buildings where the events took place.
Following the tragedies, public safety officials concluded that working sprinkler systems would have saved lives in each of the cases. Indeed, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) conducted extensive testing of The Station fire, including painstaking simulation of the conditions present that night. NIST’s findings concluded that working sprinklers would have immediately quelled the flames that eventually consumed the building, giving patrons ample opportunity to exit. That finding is consistent with other research that has produced the following statistic: A single fire in a building with a fully operational sprinkler system has never resulted in multiple loss of life.
Grandfather or Good Judgment?
Despite the fact that all of the facilities involved in these cases were high-occupancy commercial buildings, so-called grandfather clauses in the local fire codes exempted them from sprinkler requirements. But the events served as a wake-up call for building owners and legislators alike.
Building owners are coming to realize what the fire and safety industry has known all along – that sprinklers save lives. Many are retrofitting their buildings with sprinkler systems, whether required to do so or not.
While the potential to save lives is the primary consideration, there are other benefits as well. Sprinklers minimize property damage and financial loss in the event of an emergency. With fire and safety awareness on the rise among the general public, and with the very real risk of litigation looming over every incident in which injury or loss of life occurs, sprinkler retrofits are – at the very least – an intelligent risk mitigation measure. Building owners may also see reductions of 25 to 50 percent in the annual cost of fire insurance premiums.
Taking the issue another step forward, the presence of a well-designed, working sprinkler system is a strong selling point for potential commercial tenants, for parents with college-aged children shopping for the right school, or for families considering healthcare options for their loved ones.
New Laws Gain Momentum
In the wake of The Station fire, Seton Hall dormitory fire, and the nursing home fires of 2003, laws are moving forward on the state and national level that will require sprinklers in many commercial buildings currently exempted. Laws have already been passed in a number of states – such as Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Kansas, and Tennessee – requiring retrofitted sprinklers in certain public and commercial buildings.
The facts are clear – sprinklers save lives. And it is just as clear that a sprinkler retrofit is the intelligent choice for smart, responsible building owners.
John Haynes is the director of marketing at Westminster, MA-based SimplexGrinnell (www.simplexgrinnell.com). From fire safety systems to healthcare communications, SimplexGrinnell designs, engineers, and installs best-in-class systems, while providing expert inspection, testing, maintenance, and monitoring.