Sprinklers and Firefighting

In the January 2015 issue of Fire Engineering, there were two articles referencing the interaction of automatic fire sprinklers with the manual suppression efforts of firefighters. The advice given in these articles is conflicting.

In “Sprinklers Made Simple,” Ron Kan- terman indicates that “it’s extremely difficult and dangerous to fight a fire when sprinklers are operating” and “it’s recommended that you don’t.” However, in “Big Box Store Fire: Lessons Learned,” Bill Gustin explains, “The sprinklers were kept flowing to reduce the chances that the fire … would rapidly intensify” and that it made “visibility difficult” but “they [firefighters] were safer than if the sprinklers had been shut down.”

I strongly urge your readers to follow Gustin’s philosophy. There are numerous case studies where premature shutdown of an operating sprinkler system has led to an uncontrolled fire. Much effort and expense (by the building owner/occupant) go into ensuring a properly designed, installed, and maintained sprinkler system is in place. It is the firefighter’s best ally on the fireground.

Ronnie J. Gibson
Vice President and Chief Engineer
Factory Mutual Insurance Company
Norwood, Massachusetts

Ron Kanterman responds: I’ve worked with Factory Mutual for many years while working in private industry fire protection. It has a simple philosophy regarding fixed systems and allowing them to run as designed with no exceptions. What it does not study, understand, or account for is manual firefighting. It is more dangerous than normal to enter a working fire area with the sprinklers running for a few reasons. Even when you vent, the sprinkler water will continue to push the heat and steam down on top of you vs. allowing the buoyant gases and accompanying heat to go up and out. Related to that, you’re increasing your ability to get scalded with steam, and visibility stays at zero at the floor. If the fire is in a large facility (big box store) and the fire is 400 or 500 feet away from your point of entry, then sure, let the system run until you’re set, but when you’re going to move in with handlines, shut the valve. Shutting the valve prior to getting ready will surely be “premature.” The premature shutting of valves in most case histories such as the GM plant in Detroit, Michigan, in the 1960s was inexplicably done by a security guard as the fire department pulled up. If we are in the building and can control the environment and conditions through coordinated operations, we can control and extinguish the fire with little or no injuries using a combination of the fixed systems and manual fire suppression efforts.


The Fire Smoke Coalition may lose its funding for the incredibly important program “Know Your Smoke: The Dangers of Fire Smoke Exposure.” Louisiana State University sponsored this class this past October. Even though it was on a Sunday, the house was packed with firefighters from all over the state.

The course was free and had a very strong impact on the attendees and those firefighters at home to whom the attendees brought the message.

I thank RAE Systems (Honeywell) for sponsoring the program. At the same time, I am asking that it continue to support this vital effort.

Dave Casey
Lousiana State Fire Training
Baton Rouge, Louisiana

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