AUTOMATIC SPRINKLERS, THEIR USE AND ABUSE*
Mr. President and Gentlemen: In being assigned this topic, I fully realize the vast field necessary to be covered to properly treat with this very important subject and also feel my inability to do justice to this very necessary part of the protection of lives, homes and property from the ravages of the most destructible demon with which man has to contend. The automatic sprinkler is not an ancient device, having been in use for the past twenty years, but like all other apparatus, while crude in its conception, yet ingenious man has from time to time improved its construction and application until today it is a recognized factor in the commercial world, and we believe that it is still in a crude state. The use of the automatic sprinkler has saved millions of dollars in the United States and elsewhere that would have forever been lost to the whole people. The sprinkler today is applied to the factory, store, elevator, storage house, planing mill, and, in fact, to all manner of commercial risks. Recently theatres have been equipped and we are sure of the fact that if the latter were properly cared for, future disasters from fire would be unknown, as I am thoroughly convinced if an automatic sprinkler equipment is properly installed and properly cared for it will hold a fire in check until the arrival of the fire department, which is always alert to any emergency. There is a problem which now confronts us, that must be solved and that is the skyscraper. We all realize what it means to combat with a fire in a building ranging from ten to twenty stories. A raging fire in the top story of a skyscraper is a serious problem to the fire departments, be they ever so anxious to reach the scene of the fire. There are many minutes consumed in getting lines of hose to the top of a tall building and while this is being done, the fire is gaining ground appallingly fast. In our judgment the automatic sprinkler or something akin to it will have to solve this problem. Our experience leads us to believe that laws and ordinances should be passed compelling every commercial building of any proportions worth mentioning to be equipped with automatic sprinklers of approved type and especially all cellars where it is so often utterly impossible for a fireman to go owing to the foul gases and dense smoke. We have all had experiences along that line, whereas if the cellars were equipped with a good sprinkler equipment many a serious loss could be averted and the lives of many of our noble firemen saved, that are snuffed out through suffocation.
The abuses of the automatic sprinkler are many, almost as many as the uses, some of which I will enumerate minutely, one of the most serious of which is the neglect of the inspectors who are employed by the insurance company’s to see to it that the systems are kept in proper condition and the assured or owners of property where automatic sprinklers are installed depend on the various inspectors to keep them informed as to the condition of the systems and are usually ready to comply with any request made on them. Through the neglect of the insurance inspectors, who are employed by the company’s to protect their interests as well as that of the assured, many serious disasters have occurred in various ways and will add that this neglect or abuse is almost criminal; for instance, in my own city, where an inspection bureau is maintained at a large expense to the insurance company, which, however, is indirectly payed for by the people, we have had numerous disasters through the neglect of the inspectors to do their duty in properly inspecting. Tank supports become corroded and defective, causing collapse of same, wrecking a large portion of the building and drenching the entire stock, and in one instance where the steel structuresupporting a large gravity tank, which was supplimentary supply to a system of an immense match storage house had become so corroded with rust that the tank gave way, crashing through the roof, setting fire to the large stock of matches, destroying the entire contents and entailing a loss of over $100,000 to stock and wrecking a building covering a half block, which, however, was only one story in height and had not the fire department done such noble work and used such excellent judgment a large chemical works adjoining would have been destroyed. This disaster was caused by the abuse of the system through the neglect of the inspector to examine the system as he should, and perform the duties for which he was employed. We have had numerous disasters of a similar character. It is quite common to see published an account of where some tank has given way and caused a fire with loss of life and property. A few days since a defective tank gave way in the city of Montreal. Can., wrecking and setting fire to the building, causing the loss of twenty lives that cannot be replaced and destroyed by fire property valued at almost $500,000. There is no question in my mind that this appalling disaster was the result of negligence on the part of the insurance inspector, and I will add that in many, many cases very heavy tanks are placed in weak buildings, containing no less than 5,000 gallons of water and poorly supported, therefore a menace to life and property. Another great abuse is the neglect of the valves. It has been my experience on many occasions (when having responded to a sprinkler cail) to find the valve in such a condition that it would be impossible to close same without the aid of a large wrench. This constitutes abuse through the neglect of the inspector to inspect. There is another important feature that can be termed abuse, and that is in responding to a sprinkler alarm tinfailure of the steamer to make connection immediately on arriving at the scene of the call, in failing to do so the fire, if there be one, may get such a start that the belated connection may avail little and a severe loss be the result.
*Paper read at the thirty-eighth annual convention of the International Association of Fire Engineers, held at Syracuse, N. Y., August 23.
Another abuse is the neglect of the alarm system, which is one of the most essential features. There are so many very important plants that have an up-to-date and approved sprinkler system that have no alarm device, which is absolutely crude and should not be recognized as a complete system. We realize that in many cities there are sprinkled risks where the is no inspector maintained by the insurance companies, as the business of the smaller cities will not justify the expenditure: in that event, we would suggest that the chief of the fire department take charge of this important feature of protection and see to it that the tanks are kept in order, the alarm tested regularly and the valves kept in condition so that they can be operated easily and quickly We are well aware of the fact that the insurance companies are exerting every effort to reduce the fire waste, and the use of the sprinkler system is one of the means which they have encouraged greatly to help reduce this waste, but one of the very unfortunate conditions is that many of the agents of the various insurance companies are not interested in the company, only so far as the commissions are concerned, and the general good of the public is unknown to these petty (and ofttimes unscrupulous) agents, who are happiest when losses are great, making rates higher, therefore swelling the commissions. I would urge that the insurance companies and the various fire departments guard more zealously the automatic springier, encourage its perfection to a much higher degree, observe the utmost care in the selection of men on whom the responsibility is placed and lessen, if not eliminate, the many disasters and losses that occur through the abuse of the automatic sprinklers, and to my fellow-chiefs I would suggest that you give more thought to the automatic sprinkler, assist and insist that this good work be done, and in so doing benefit the people you serve by reducing the fire waste, thereby reducing the cost of insurance, and we are sure of a general happy result.
Upon motion, duly seconded, the papers were ordered printed in the proceedings, and a vote of thanks extended to the gentlemen preparing same.
The Hamilton, Ohio, Fire.
C. W. McClung, fire marshal at Hamilton, sends the following account of the fire: “The building in which the fire started was 100×200 feet, three stories high, of brick, and 32 years old. The fire department received the first alarm by telephone and fire alarm box No. 44. Upon arriving at the building the firemen found that the flames had gained such headway that it was impossible to save it. The mass of rubbish lying about the yard made it difficult for firemen to work to advantage. The city has a direct pressure water system and no engines are required. There were only four fire hydrants available—6-inch double, and to these the hose companies attached their lines. The pressure of water at hydrant was 90 pounds. Eight streams were worked through 1 1/8 inch nozzles. The streets at that point arc only 20 feet wide, through which an 8-inch water main ran. Three thousand feet of cotton rubber-lined double jacket hose was used, but the building was too far gone when we arrived to make it necessary to use the Hart turret pipe. The department poured water on the building for five hours, but the building fell in within forty minutes after our arrival. The contents consisted of machinery, eastings and patterns. The loss on building is about $24,000, and on contents $70,000.
Macon, Ga., has offered $500,000 for the plant of the gas and water company of that city.