In Feb. 17, 2003, the use of indoor pyrotechnics ignited a fire in a Minneapolis music venue. The club’s automatic sprinkler system quickly activated and extinguished the blaze without a single life lost. Three days later, The Station nightclub in Providence, RI, burned to the ground after a similar pyrotechnics display engulfed the ceiling in flames. More than 100 people were killed in one of this country’s deadliest fires ever. The Station was not equipped with fire sprinklers.
America’s fire departments responded to an estimated 1.7 million fires in 2003 alone, with nearly 4,000 civilian deaths, more than 18,000 civilian injuries, the death of 111 firefighters, and a stunning $12.3 billion in property damages. Once a fire starts, the most effective measures to combat it are early detection, alarm, and especially fire sprinkler systems. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), Quincy, MA, there is no documented case of more than two fatalities in a building fire when sprinkler systems are properly installed and fully operational. Such a staggering statistic is difficult to ignore. Moreover, the people least capable of self-evacuation are most directly protected by such in-house measures.
According to congressional findings included in fire sprinkler legislation introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives, the use of sprinklers is responsible for a 70-percent reduction in total property damage from fires in public assembly, educational, residential, commercial, industrial, and manufacturing buildings. Contrary to popular belief - perpetuated in no small measure by what is seen in dramatic movies - when one fire sprinkler goes off to fight a fire, the entire system does not activate. Individual sprinklers react as needed to temperatures in the fire area. Also, from an investment standpoint, typical costs for a sprinkler system installation in new or existing commercial buildings are very affordable. Those costs range from under a dollar to up to $2.50 per square foot - price points that are comparable to the installation of new carpet. In addition, some companies in the industry offer lease-financing options that make the cost of fire sprinkler and alarm system upgrades and retrofits more affordable for building owners.
With aggressive new legislation in a number of states forcing businesses and communities to meet increasingly tough fire codes, fire sprinkler systems are becoming more common in new construction and existing structures. In some cases, older buildings, which previously had been “grandfathered” and thus exempted from current regulations, are being held to today’s safety standards.
A Carrot and a Stick
The NFPA recently issued a report containing new evidence supporting the considerable value of automatic fire sprinkler systems, finding them even more reliable than previously thought in reducing deaths from fire and in protecting property. The report, U.S. Experience with Sprinklers and Other Fire Extinguishing Equipment, states that the chances of dying in a fire are reduced by up to 75 percent when sprinklers are used. The report also documented for the first time that virtually no sprinkler system failures have been product related. Instead, failures have in large part been caused by judgment errors.
More importantly, the report concluded that fire sprinkler systems are still very much under-used in the United States. For example, at recent code hearings, representatives of the healthcare industry testified that as many as 4,200 nursing homes may need to be retrofitted with fire sprinklers. Thousands of assisted-living facilities housing older Americans and people with disabilities lack sprinkler protection. The results of a USA Today investigation published in October also uncovered some disturbing findings. According to that report, four out of every five nursing homes that suffered fatal fires since 1999 had obtained waivers from regulators that allowed them to stay in business despite fire-safety deficiencies.
Building owners do not argue with fire authorities over the rationale and need for protecting their buildings with fire sprinklers. Rather, the issue has often been cost. In that regard, hope is on the horizon. The passage of federal legislation, Senate Bill (S.512) and House Bill (HR 1131), that proposes tax and depreciation incentives would help ease the financial burden many building owners face in proceeding with a fire-safety upgrade, especially when coupled with the cost savings associated with insurance discounts. Visit (www.nfsa.org) or (www.sprinklernet.org) to obtain more information and register support for this legislation.
Technology Continues to Move Forward
On a daily basis, sprinkler manufacturers work with contractors, industry association members, and code-compliance Authorities Having Jurisdiction (AHJs) to identify the needs - both common and unique - of facility owners across a multitude of building designs, operations, and applications. Continuing advances - in materials, installation techniques, heat and pressure sensitivity, flow efficiencies, maintenance, testing, and overall reliability - are all focused on the goal of designing and producing commercial and residential fire sprinkler systems that dramatically enhance life and property protection and help reduce building construction and operating costs. A few of the advances and emerging technologies that can be found in today’s systems include:
- Control Mode Sprinklers - standard manufactured sprinklers that limit fire spread and stunt high heat release rather than extinguish a fire; they also “pre-wet” adjacent combustibles.
- Suppression Sprinklers - operate quickly for high-challenge fires, and are expected to extinguish a fire by releasing a high density of water directly to the base of the fire.
- Fast-Response Sprinklers - provide quicker response and are now required for all light-hazard installations.
- Residential Sprinklers - designed specifically to increase the survivability of an individual who is in the room where a fire originates.
- Extended coverage sprinklers - designed to reduce the number of sprinklers needed to protect a given area. These come in quick-response, residential, and standard-response types, and are also available for both light- and ordinary-hazard occupancies.
- Special sprinklers, such as Early Suppression Fast Response (ESFR) - designed for high-challenge rack storage and high-pile storage fires. In most cases, these sprinklers can eliminate the expense and resources needed to install in-rack sprinkler heads.
- Low-pressure sprinklers - provide needed water coverage in multi-story buildings where pressure may be reduced. These low-pressure sprinklers bring a number of benefits: reduced pipe size, reduction or elimination of a fire pump, and overall cost savings.
- Low-profile, decorator, and concealed sprinklers - designed to be more aesthetically pleasing.
- Sprinkler system valves that are smaller, lighter, and easier to install and maintain and, therefore, less costly.
- A Fluid Delivery Time computer program that simulates water flowing through a dry system in order to accurately predict critical “water-to-fire” delivery time for dry-pipe systems.
- The use of cost-efficient CPVC piping for light-hazard and residential sprinkler systems.
- Advanced coatings on steel pipes, designed to resist or reduce Microbiologically Influenced Corrosion (MIC) and enhance sprinkler system life.
- Corrosion monitoring devices to alert users of potential problems.
- More efficient coordination in evaluating building sprinkler system need - including site surveys, accurate measurements, and the use of CAD and hydraulics software to ensure that fire sprinkler system designs respond to the specific risks and the physical layout of the premises.
Testing and Inspection
Once installed and operating, regular inspection and testing of fire sprinkler systems provide the peace of mind that comes from knowing a system is ready and remains in top working order. Although some users may want to carry out inspections and testing on their own, a good (and sometimes safer) alternative is to have trained professional sprinkler system service personnel handle this responsibility. Sprinkler system inspections and tests help ensure that important NFPA standards are being met. This type of program confirms a system’s readiness, inspects components, and provides a detailed report recommending any necessary corrective action.
Frank Monikowski is the fire sprinkler marketing manager and Terry Victor is the national manager of fire sprinkler systems at Boca Raton, FL-based SimplexGrinnell (www.simplexgrinnell.com).