Residental Sprinklers – Fire Protection that Saves Lives
This is a guest post by Michael T Skinner. If you want to Guest Post, check out the Guidelines here.
Imagine that you, your spouse and your three children live in a 2,200 square foot, 2 story, 4 bedroom house in Anytown, USA. It is 1:30am and you are awaken by the shrill of your smoke detectors activating. As you leap from you bed, you are immediately forced towards the floor since the smoke makes it unbearable to stand erect and breathe. Your pulse rate doubles as adrenaline is being feverously dumped into your bloodstream. Thoughts enter your mind faster than you are able to process them: “What the ….?” “Where are the kids?” “How can we all get out?” “Why is this happening?”. As you open the door to the hallway you can’t see anything except an orange glow towards the stairway. Panic takes over, what do you do next? Every day in America people die in fires, most time in there own home. In 2005, 3,675 civilians died along with 87 firefighters, averaging to over 10 people dying in fires each day.i Children 5 years and under face the highest risk of home fire death.ii There is a way to reduce these numbers considerably, that way is the installation of fire sprinklers in your home. Fire sprinklers have been around for more than a century in factories, warehouses, commercial properties and public building such as schools, hospitals, and hotels. They were around long before smoke detector technology was invented and are highly reliable, yet they are resisted due to numerous myths concerning them. Fire sprinklers save lives by providing the necessary protection that allows the occupants to escape a building fire as well as reduces property damage.
A fire sprinkler system works quite simple, a network of pipes is filled with water under pressure and is installed behind the walls and ceilings. Individual sprinklers are placed along the piping to protect areas beneath them. Because the water is always in the piping, the fire sprinkler system is always on. If a fire breaks out, the air temperature above the fire rises and the sprinkler activates when the air temperature gets high enough. The sprinkler sprays water forcefully over the flames, extinguishing them completely in most cases, or at least controlling the heat and limiting the development of toxic smoke until the fire department arrives. Only the sprinkler(s) nearest the fire activate. Smoke will not activate sprinklersiii Sprinklers are so effective because they react so quickly. They reduce the risk of death or injury from a fire, by dramatically reduce the heat, flames and smoke produced, allowing people the time to evacuate the area. Residental home fire sprinkler systems release approximately 10-25 gallons of water per minute, compared with the approximately 250 gallons per minute of a typical fire hose used by the fire department. In less time than it usually takes the fire department to arrive on the scene, sprinklers contain and even extinguish a home fire. That not only reduces property damage, it saves lives.iv
Initial thoughts of where sprinklers would have been effective bring the numerous tragic fires that have claimed large number of victims in which sprinkler systems would have saved most if not all of the lives taken. We have all heard of these incidents and some have seen the horrific photos or videos of the scene. The Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston on November 28, 1942, 492 people died, the MGM Grand Hotel fire in Las Vegas in 1980, 87 people died, and more recently, the Station Nightclub fire in West Warwick, RI where 100 people lost there lives.v These fires have brought fire safety legislation that was meant to prevent the future loss of life. The Cocoanut Grove fire overhauled and implemented much more stringent fire codes for adequate exits and fire resistant decorations. The Station Nightclub fire is responsible for many states adopting laws that require sprinkler systems in nightclubs. As tragic and unfortunate as these high profile fires were, they represent only a fraction of the overall fire deaths in America. The true tragedy is that close to 4,000 people will die in fires this year, most of whom will perish in their home. The fact is, the most dangerous place to be, with respect to fire is in your own home.
The history of sprinklers is quite interesting in it’s evolution. During the mid 1800s, New England mill owners developed a crude, perforated pipe system to protect their facilities. These pipes increased fire protection, although they distributed water everywhere and the water was delivered by a manual valve that had to be turned on by someone present in order for the system to function. During the 1870s, sprinklers were designed that allowed for an automatic system. Henry Parmelle, has been credited with creating the first commercially successful closed automatic sprinkler. He developed this concept while looking for ways to protect his piano factory in New Haven, Conn from a devasting fire. After some improvements that were made to the dispersment of water and fusible links that were used during the next 20 years, sprinklers have remained largely unchanged for the past 100 years. During the 1900s, sprinklers were designed for specific occupancies and different types of operating systems were developed. Some of the different types of operating systems include wet pipe systems, which are the most common, simplest and least expensive to install. Water remains in the pipes under pressure and is ready to go upon a sprinkler activation. Another type is a dry pipe system, which is installed wherever the system would be subject to freezing such as a loading dock, unheated attics or garages. This type of system requires an air compressor to keep the pipes filled with air and to hold back the water, upon sprinkler activation air releases the water valve and water flows through system. Sprinkler systems may also be tied in with certain fire alarm devices so for example, in the application of a art gallery or an area with valuable electronic equipment it would require a heat or smoke detector to activate first and then that would open the water valve, this would prevent an accidental discharge of water that would cause substantial damage to equipment. This type of system is called a preaction system. Technology has progressed to the point that some aircraft hangers now have infrared flame detectors that if two or more detect a flame will activate a high expansion foam system that will fill the entire hanger area with a special foam that will extinguish the fire, yet not damage the aircraft. These various systems have specific functions that differ accordingly, however the concept behind these specialized systems is the same as with a simple residential fire protection system. The objective is to have a system in place that will control a fire at the smallest possible level, therefore avoiding major damage to the building and even more importantly, loss of lifevi
Finding examples of sprinklers saving lives is not as easy as finding examples of people dying in a building with out sprinklers. To find examples of people dying, just open up your Internet Explorer search engine, such as Google and type “died fire”, you will receive approximately 15,000 hits for articles or sites with information on people dying in fires, remember an average of 10 people die in the United States each day in fires. These articles are the same news stories that lead off the nightly local news and sometimes national news. On the other hand, the stories that tell of sprinklers saving lives are usually those little blurbs in the region section and are about a paragraph in length. It has been difficult for sprinkler supporters to find good stories that are convincing enough to change people’s mindset about sprinklers. Scottsdale Arizona is one of the few communities in the country that has passed legislation mandating that all new homes built in Scottsdale have a residential fire sprinkler system and they have had this in place for 15 years. Recently they released a report that based on data collected by the Scottsdale Fire Department, it indicates that 13 lives were saved and more than $20 million in property loss was prevented. In Scottsdale, 41,408 homes, more than 50 percent of the homes in Scottsdale are protected with fire sprinkler systems. During the last three years, the average fire loss in homes with sprinklers was $2,166, compared to $45,019 in homes without sprinklersvii During the last 15 years, Scottsdale Arizona has had 13 people die in fires, all have been in buildings without sprinkler protection. In those same 15 years, they had 13 fires in which sprinklers activated, controlling the fire to allow occupants to escape.
Why do I need sprinklers when I have smoke detectors is a question that is frequently asked when the topic of sprinklers is brought up. Smoke detectors are helpful tools, but they are limited since all they do is notify you, they take no action on the fire itself. In the 1960s, the average person in the United States had never heard of a smoke detector. By the mid 1980s, smoke detector laws, requiring that detectors be placed in all new and existing residences existed in 38 states. By 1993 an estimated 92% of all homes in the U.S. were equipped with detectors.viii Smoke detectors have been responsible alerting occupants of a building and have been effective tool in saving peoples lives. Detectors function as a early warning system that reduces the risk of dying by nearly 50%, with smoke detectors being most people’s first and only line of defense against fire.ix Reducing your risk by nearly 50% sounds great, however that still leaves another 50% to deal with. Most people do not understand how fast fires grow. In less than one minute a fire can grow to the point where the entire room’s contents are burning and with a typical fire department response of 3 to 5 minutes from the time they are notified, the chances of survival diminish rapidly. I have spoken to numerous victims of fires and they have all stated they could not believe how fast the fire spread. Smoke detection is usually the first means of notification that there is a fire since smoke is able to travel away from the fire to other areas within a structure to activate a smoke detector, now the clock is running. A fire that is large enough to set of a smoke detector has caused enough smoke to be produced that may obstruct an exit path. In most residential structures without sprinkler protection smoke is flowing freely between floors since most do not have any features similar to commercial structures to restrict the travel of smoke (usually doors), and the fire continues to grow. Even if the fire is on the opposite side of your home, smoke may travel to all areas which may hinder your escape or rescue of your loved ones. A home with a residential sprinkler system will respond first with detector activation followed by the closest sprinkler head activating. With water being applied onto the fire, it immediately starts to extinguish the fire. Once this occurs, smoke production is reduced, heat production is reduced and chances are that you will be able to make a safe egress from this hazardous condition. To me I have to look no further than my children to see the benefits of having sprinklers in a home.
Myths that surround sprinklers seemed to have had a dramatic negative effect on support for them. Myth: All sprinklers will go off at once. Fact: This scenario is only common in movies and TV shows, but is not true for a residential sprinkler system. Only the sprinkler closest to the fire activates and 90% of the time one sprinkler is able to contain the fire. Myth: They will activate accidently. Fact: It is extremely rare for sprinklers to operate accidentally, odds are the same for normal plumbing fixtures and piping. Myth: Sprinklers are ugly and unsightly. Fact: Modern residential sprinklers are inconspicuous and ccan be mounted flush with walls or ceilings.
Michael T. Skinner is a former firefighter with over 20 years experience and lives in a sprinkler protected home in Massachusetts.
i Overview of the US Fire Problem, R. Fahey and P. LeBlanc 2006
ii Overview of the US Fire Problem, J. Hall 2005
iii NFPA fact sheets Fire Protection equipment, automatic sprinklers 2007
vi NFPA fact sheets Automatic sprinklers 2007
v NFPA Loss of life reports 2007
vi AFSA Fire sprinkler industry overview afsa.org 2007
vii Scottsdale, AZ 15 year history success 2006
viii NFPA US experience with smoke detectors and other detectors J. Hall 1994
ix NFSA.org Reducing America’s fire losses with residential sprinkle systems 2007