BY COREY BUSCH
Fire sprinkler systems have been around for many years. The first system dates back to the mid-1800s when a piano manufacturer designed a system to protect his piano factory. Since then, the systems have undergone many changes, but their benefits remain the same.
In the 1990s, the city of Rohnert Park adopted a zero-square-foot sprinkler ordinance for commercial properties. Also, it had, for many years, a residential “hot spot” sprinkler system requirement. Three years ago, the city- aware of the benefits of sprinklers through its own experience and research-changed the ordinance to require that all newly built homes and apartment complexes, regardless of size, be fully sprinklered and that apartment complexes of all sizes and existing homes to which additions have been made be retrofitted with a full sprinkler system.
Occasionally, the question “Why does the city have such a restrictive ordinance?” is raised. We could answer with “We wanted to be on the leading edge” or “Now, almost every city in the county has a similar ordinance, and even the county is looking at the same type of ordinance for unincorporated areas.” We could say that we’ve known for many years that sprinklers are life-saving devices meant to extinguish fires, not just control them, or that there has been no reported loss of life in a building protected by a working sprinkler system.
However, the best response to that question would be the following story.
It was Thanksgiving night in 1993. The setting for the story is Hampton Trace Apart-ments on Enterprise Drive in Rohnert Park, California. A family has just finished Thanksgiving dinner. After dinner, activities took the family members from their dining room area, where a cozy fire was burning in the fireplace, to a back room in the apartment. By the time the family members smelled smoke, it was too late. The room was well involved. Apparently, a log had shifted and then rolled from the unscreened fireplace to an area under the dining room table. The Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety responded to find a well-involved apartment building with fire running the attic and roof (see photo 1); it eventually took out six apartments. The seriously damaged apartment building was rebuilt, but this time a full fire suppression system was added.
Fast forward to September 3, 1999. It’s late in the night on Labor Day weekend at the Boris Court Apartments. The scene is another well-involved apartment building. A ground-floor apartment had been intentionally set afire. The sleeping, unsuspecting tenants were awakened to the sound of neighbors banging frantically on their doors yelling, “FIRE!” The fire destroyed six apartments (see photo 2) and also had to be rebuilt. Once again, the city required that sprinklers be installed when repairs began.
On Monday, March 12, 2001, the Rohnert Park Department of Public Safe-ty responded once more to a reported structure fire at the Hampton Trace Apartments. A woman fell asleep while cooking in the kitchen of one of the apartments. This time when the firefighters arrived on-scene, they found that the fire sprinkler system had extinguished the fire on the stove. Instead of a well-involved structure fire, they found fire damage limited to the object of the fire’s origin and some minor water damage. They quickly vacuumed up the water. A sprinkler head was replaced, and the sprinkler system was restored to full service, ready to extinguish a fire should one occur again.
It’s said that lightning doesn’t strike twice, but in the case of the Boris Court Apartments, fire did strike twice-in the exact same apartment as the fire of September 3, 1999. This time, our department responded to the Sunday, October 14, 2001, 911 call to find a fully sprinkled apartment building. The tenant left a pan unattended on the stove while she went to answer the phone. The pan caught fire. The sprinkler system activated and extinguished the fire. A little water to clean up, and it was business as usual for the Boris Court Apartment residents.
Well, that’s it-two apartment buildings, four fires. Thanks to our city’s sprinkler ordinance and the Department of Public Safety, the last two fires had much happier outcomes for the residents.
COREY BUSCH is a fire inspector for the City of Rohnert Park (CA) Department of Public Safety, where he has worked for four years. He has been a fire inspector for 13 years.
Photos by author.