The Benefit of Fire Sprinkler Systems

I received a telephone call one day from a friend concerning her family business. The business recently suffered a catastrophic fire in which little of the building or contents remained. The business was started by the grandparents, had been in the family for 60 years, and was a very successful florist shop. My friend was distraught that all of the heirlooms and memorabilia that the entire family had collected were forever lost. The newspaper article mentioned there were three weddings coming up that weekend that this florist shop was responsible to provide. Fortunately, no one was injured in this structure fire. Insurance can take care of a lost building. Insurance cannot take care of the lost treasures, or make up to the wedding couples for their special day that will be forever diminished. We know that a fire sprinkler system could have very well reduced this loss significantly. The business may have been closed the next day for some cleaning and reopened in time to deliver the flowers to each of the weddings for that coming weekend. Like most small businesses that sustain a major fire, that business may never reopen again.

Most of the time we think only about fire destroying the building. Little, is ever reported that all of the employees losing their jobs either temporary or most likely permanently. This recently happened in the Echo Lake Foods fire in the City of Burlington where up to 300 have lost their jobs due to an uncontrolled fire. Fire sprinklers would have been a large factor in saving the building, had they been present. Another factor to be considered is the loss of production. Even a short loss of production can have a devastating outcome for a factory or business. There are many hidden financial burdens that come from the result of a fire, including bankruptcy.

There are many misconceptions about fire sprinkler systems. Hollywood is in the business of developing drama and creating sensationalism. The general public then believes what they see on a screen. Unfortunately the fire service has to battle this ignorance created to fool the public. There are many falsehoods that are perpetrated by the construction industry against fire sprinkler systems to increase the profit margins, at the expense of life safety.

After a fire activates the fire sprinklers, the focus is always turned to the water damage. Little or nomore thought is given to the reduced fire damage and the potential loss of lives prevented with the use of a fire sprinkler system. In a NFPA report, fire causes 2-3 times more damage to the building and contents than a fire sprinkler will damage with water. A couple of facts from NFPA: The death rate per fire in sprinklered homes is lower by 83%. Direct property damage per fire in sprinklered homes is lower by 69%.

Multifamily living has many life safety challenges. Everyone in the entire building needs to be fire safety conscious. It only takes the carelessness of one family member in one of the dwelling units to destroy the homes and possessions of every other family in the building. Added to this fact is that multifamily buildings are much larger than a single family home. The exit distances can be much longer and more difficult to exit because of the distance and with multiple people trying to exit at the same time. Fire sprinklers will give additional time for the residents to exit the building. Many times one or two fire sprinkler heads which have activated will extinguish the fire or at the very least control the fire until fire fighters arrive on scene. This is why there was so much work done by the Wisconsin fire service a few years ago to change legislation to require three or more units to be fully protected.

As life safety professionals, fire fighters must support and promote the installation of residential fire sprinklers. Engineered lightweight construction materials such as composite wood joists or engineered wood truss systems are strong under normal conditions, but fail rapidly in a fire. Many tests have been done on these systems with similar results. The rapid failure in the structural integrity of lightweight construction gives on average a two minute escape time for the occupants. That time can be compared to dimensional lumber which has an average of fifteen minutes. Residential fire sprinkler systems are specifically intended to provide an extended egress time to the occupants and therefore are primarily designed to be life safety devices. Today’s homes contain more products with higher heat release rates than in previous years and the construction of these homes has become less fire resistant due to the use of lightweight construction materials. This combination has proven to be deadly for firefighters. Tragically nine people have lost their lives in the first month and a half of this year in residential fires. Residential fire sprinklers have proven to be effective in making a home much safer for the family that resides there, and also safer for the fire fighters that respond to fires located in the structure.