The Safety of Automatic Fire Sprinklers

July 1, 2008

Common questions are answered about the use of automatic sprinkler systems

Although automatic sprinkler systems have been in use in the United States since 1874, and have a proven record of protecting life and property, a number of common misconceptions still exist about their operation and effectiveness. The Dallas-based American Fire Sprinkler Association offers the following answers to common questions about the use of automatic sprinkler systems.

Q: How effective are fire sprinklers?
A: In situations where the sprinkler system was working properly, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), Quincy, MA, doesn't have a record of any fire killing more than two people when it occurred in a completely sprinklered public, educational, institutional, or residential building. In cases where fatalities occur in a building equipped with fire sprinklers, the deceased were almost always in very close contact with the fire and were burned severely before the sprinkler activated (i.e. smoking in bed, explosions, etc.). Sprinklers typically reduce the chances of dying in a fire - and reduce average property loss - by one-half to two-thirds in any kind of property.

Q: Do any studies exist that document the effectiveness of fire sprinklers?
A: U.S. Experience with Sprinklers (November 2003) by Kimberly Rohr provides an excellent study of the use and experience of automatic fire sprinklers. This report was produced by, and is available from, the NFPA at www.nfpa.org.

Q: Are fire sprinklers prone to accidental discharge?
A: The odds of a sprinkler activating due to a defect are about 1 in 16 million. Fire sprinklers have a long history of proven dependability and reliability. Although sprinklers can be damaged and activated through intentional or accidental abuse, it's very rare. Sprinkler piping is no more likely to leak than the existing plumbing piping in any building.

Q: Doesn't fire-sprinkler activation result in lots of water damage?
A: No. Fire sprinklers are designed to control a fire in its early stages, when less water is required. Most fires are completely controlled with the activation of only one or two sprinklers, particularly in residential dwellings. Fire hoses, on average, use more than eight times the amount of water that sprinklers do to contain a fire.

Q: Are there any federal laws that require automatic fire sprinklers?
A: The U.S. Hotel and Motel Fire Safety Act of 1990 (PL101-391) was passed by Congress to save lives and protect property by promoting fire and life safety in hotels, motels, and other places of public accommodation. The law mandates that federal employees on travel must stay in public accommodations that adhere to the life-safety requirements in the legislation guidelines. PL101-391 also states that federally funded meetings and conferences cannot be held in properties that don't comply with the law. PL101-391 is applicable to all places of public accommodation and requires that these properties are equipped with hard-wired, single-station smoke detectors in each guestroom, and an automatic sprinkler system, with a sprinkler head in each guestroom. Properties that are three stories or lower in height are exempt from the sprinkler requirement. The U.S. Fire Administration, based in Emmitsburg, MD, has been charged with carrying out FEMA's responsibilities with respect to the U.S. Hotel and Motel Fire Safety Act of 1990; it offers a list of hotels and motels that meet these requirements (www.usfa.dhs.gov/applications/hotel).

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