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Casual fire suppression means relying on fire extinguishers being provided for the employee or bystander to use. I served on the NFPA Committee on Portable Fire Extinguishers for about 15 years. This experience has led me to question the general costeffectiveness of providing fire extinguishers for casual use. Even when employees have been trained, the difficulty is that the training takes place outdoors, while most fires take place indoors. It can cost up to S2,500 to outfit a firefighter to get close to a fire with a hoseline; the extinguisher requires an unprotected amateur to approach within a few feet.

Space does not permit a full discussion of the pros and cons; suffice it to say that there have been many instances where the use of extinguishers has delayed the calling of the fire department. All extinguisher training sessions should place great emphasis on calling the fire department first or, at the very least, as soon as the first extinguisher has proven ineffective.

I like the signs in one Las Vegas hotel that indicate that removing the extinguisher automatically notifies security and they will come to assist you. The signs most likely are intended to discourage theft, but the concept of an alarm being transmitted when the extinguisher is taken from its bracket is most attractive.

Where a sprinkler system with central station water flow alarm is provided, the ideal extinguisher is a 1 ½-inch hoseline. The alarm feature means no secret fires and discourages use of the fire hose for routine washdown.


The one aspect of fire department operations pertinent to this series is prefire planning.

When I started my fire service career as a buff prior to World War II, there was no organized prefire planning—a few young officers made some informal efforts and chief officers relied on experience. (Many had much experience, having come up under the old continuous duty system.) I recall asking an older buff what he thought a deputy chief would do with a specific problem. His answer: “Young fellow, you never ask a deputy chief what he is going to do.” He felt supremely confident with his ability to deal with whatever came up.

My great interest in prefire planning came about by necessity. As a Naval officer I had responsibilities for lives and property for which I was totally unprepared. My first companies were kids I had trained myself. I decided that we had to work to minimize surprises on the fireground by learning everything possible about potential problems ahead of time. The first article in the fire service press on prefire planning was “Surveys Aid in Preparation for Handling Large Fires” {Fire Engineering, January 19-18). In it I described the prefire survey of a huge wooden Navy warehouse full of vital spare airplane propellers.

Many fire departments preplan today. This is not a treatise on the subject, but rather some concepts and suggestions that you might find useful as triggers for improvements in your own system.

The word “plan,” though commonly used, is a misnomer. What we really want is a prefire analysis. The use of the word “plan” sometimes leads to overemphasis on the planning of action in detail. It is probably better to use the plan or analysis to accumulate the necessary information on which sound judgments can be made at the time of the emergency, particularly if the emergency force is well-trained. If the emergency force isn’t welltrained, then probably more detailed planning against specific problems is necessary. If the plan is too specific, there is also the problem of failure to follow the plan, for whatever reason, which can be taken as evidence of negligence or incompetence in a lawsuit.

In “Fire Loss Management #25: Automatic Sprinklers” (April 1991), the statement on the California high-rise legislation was incomplete. Since 1974, California law has required that buildings over 75 feet in height be sprinklered. Los Angeles now requires retrofit of sprinklers in pre-1974 buildings. The state of California rejected such legislation for the rest of the state, reportedly because many state-owned buildings would be required to be sprinklered.


The concept of preplanning at some locations is sadly lacking. At one government facility there are 20 to 30 places where the fire department is instructed to take no action until approval is obtained from the department head or his representative. The difficulty is that this rule can be enforced against the fire department, but it has no effect whatsoever on the fire. The fire does not recognize the authority of the client. The fire chief is not in charge of the fire but of the fire department’s effort to contain the fire. The fire sets its own agenda.

In another example, a school board “forbade” any “unannounced” inspections by the fire department. I didn’t see anyone point out that fire is an “unannounced” visitor.

At one facility I saw a notice that read: “In the event of an alarm from Building 209, do not respond until called by Dr. Blank.” The notice was signed by the fire chief. The fire chief was ill-advised to take on this responsibility, and it is obvious he did not think up this procedure—Dr. Blank did. Dr. Blank should then have the responsibility. He should be sent a draft memo through the proper channels to sign and return, through a common superior. The memo should read something like this: “There is no possible way the fire department can be instructed to deal with a fire in facility XYZ. In the event of a fire in facility XYZ, I wish it be allowed to burn until I can arrive at the scene and direct the operations. I accept the full responsibility for the loss of property in the amount of SXXXX (here, insert the total value of the project).”

It would take a brave man or an idiot to sign such a document. If you send it through the proper channels, it is very likely that a better solution will be found.

Consider divorcing prefire planning from the inspection function. An inspection function is essentially a policing function. A client’s (the representative of the location being preplanned) activities are being examined to see whether he or she has complied with the applicable standards. If found at fault, he or she may be penalized. The inspector, therefore, is principally a police officer, and as Gilbert and Sullivan told us, “A policeman’s lot is not a happy one.” The reason is simple: The best you can get in an encounter with a police officer is a draw.

I don’t think it is wise to walk in on the client and announce that you are there to develop a prefire plan. You may have picked the worst possible day of the year, and it is quite possible the reply may be, “Fine; when can we get the fire going?”

I suggest a form letter from the fire chief indicating the mayor’s appreciation of the fact that the client’s establishment is making a valuable contribution to the economic life of the community. Since a large percentage of businesses that suffer a serious fire never reopen, it is to the mutual interest of the client and the city that such a fire not happen. Any pertinent local experience should be cited. The letter should go on to say that the mayor has directed the chief to make every effort to keep businesses in business, and in order to manage a fire effectively there are a number of things that the fire department should know and record ahead of time. It should conclude by stating that since such surveys require mutual cooperation, they should contact the chief to arrange a mutually satisfactory appointment.

Wow! The client never got such a letter in his life from any government agency. Most begin “You are hereby directed to….” Imagine the talk at the country club, the business association, the rotary club.

Don’t compel the client to do business with a firefighter or send a firefighter, no matter how gifted, to do the survey. If the firefighter is so very gifted, a temporary designation or promotion is in order. The client is an important person—at least to himself—so send an important person to deal with him. If the client is recalcitrant, then you can take whatever measures are legally available.

Career fire departments operate uniquely compared with any other organization operating around the clock, such as the police department, a prison, a hospital, a military base, or an industrial plant. In all such organizations the real decision makers operate from 9 to 5. Anything serious that happens on the night shift is referred to supervisors at home. In contrast, fire departments deliver immediately to the scene of an emergency a senior officer with the authority to make important decisions.

Many fire departments operating on a two-, three-, or four-platoon system operate almost as if each platoon were a separate fire department. A client who functions in a “normal” sort of organization cannot really understand an organization that has a chief “A,” a chief “B,” and a chief “C” — each of whom regards himself as being equal to and smarter than the other two put together. Since there are obviously many ways of handling a possible emergency situation (perhaps all equally effective), it is very likely that if each senior officer approaches an executive and attempts to develop an emergency plan, three widely different procedures will emerge. It is completely understandable that this will leave the client’s confidence in the ability of the fire department to handle the situation lacking.

All contact with the client should be through a single individual who has the lead responsibility for that particular risk. Differences on procedures should be ironed out within the fire department.

The accepted objective of prefire planning is to consider emergency situations that might occur and develop the best possible plan for coping with the emergency. I believe that preplanning also serves another valuable purpose: If a credible disaster scenario is developed and the best planning that can be done provides an inadequate solution, then management is faced with a clear-cut problem. The risk has been calculated and the answer is unsatisfactory. Either a solution must be found or those responsible must face up to the fact that an unwarranted risk is being taken. When the plan develops the conclusion that a disaster is credible, that conclusion should be shared with the client and appropriate political officials.

Let me offer some personal experience relating to the famous Texas City, Texas, ammonium nitrate explosion that killed 468 people and caused S67 million (1947 dollars) in property damage. Ammonium nitrate, which is both an explosive and a fertilizer, was being shipped by the U.S. Army to devastated Europe. Despite the disaster, a week later the Army made a similar shipment through Galveston, Texas. As was said of the Bourbon Kings of France, our military establishment “learns nothing and forgets nothing.”

A year later similar shipments were being made through the Army Base at Norfolk where we (Naval base fire department) provided protection but not inspection. The boss was away, so. the problem was mine. Comparison with Texas City showed that a similar explosion would cause total devastation over a wide area, including the fashionable Larchmont area of the city of Norfolk.

I prepared a prefire plan that called for towing the ship away from the pier if the fire wasn’t out immediately. Of the choices, the best place to beach it was at Craney Island, the Navy’s East Coast gasoline reserve. In addition to the tanks, there were 75,000 55-gallon drums of gasoline. I realized that the ship might not explode but simply burn out. The second-guessers all would be able to tell how they would have handled it better than “that 29year-old kid.” I called even’ possible potential “expert” on a recording telephone and solicited advice. I hit pay dirt with the director of public safety in Norfolk, Calvin Dalby. He had been Coast Guard port commander during the war and had a low opinion of military munitions safety procedures. He got the political wires working, and in 48 hours the ammonium nitrate was moved out of the congested residential area to the special ammunition piers at Naval Ammunition Depot in Earle, New Jersey. (Don’t write and complain that I didn’t solve the problem, only unloaded it. I was paid to worry about the Fifth Naval District —if you can’t solve the problems of the world, do your own job!)


“What the fire doesn’t destroy, the firefighters will” is a too-well-known saying. In fact, many fire departments do valuable salvage work. This is the best-kept secret in the United States. In my radiation lectures I presented a beautifully detailed drawing of a fire scene by my associate George Miles. He showed two firefighters throwing a cover over a table. When I used this slide outside fire department classes, the question was always, “What are those firefighters doing?” I have never seen a picture of a good salvage job but have seen many pictures of the year’s biggest foul-up, used in an annual report. Many times the TV reporter arrives after the action is over, so why not suggest some pictures of a good salvage job? The news editor would be almost certain to run such a “man bites dog” story. Where sprinklers have operated, good salvage is good public relations for sprinkler protection.

Make every effort to restore toys, dolls, and teddy bears to children. The trauma of losing a home to fire is bad enough without the loss of a favorite toy. If you find scorched paper money, like a roll of bills in a coffee can, do not disturb it. The owner should send it to the Treasury Department in Washington, D.C., and all recognizable money will be replaced. The staff has special techniques for doing the job.

One of the most easily preventable tragic losses due to fire is the loss of records. Start with the fire department—are your personnel, inspection, and preplanning records on computers adequately backed up? An ordinary fire-resistive safe or cabinet is not adequate storage for computer disks. The standards permit an interior temperature rise to more than 300°F—safe for paper, but totally destructive to the magnetic material in disks. There are special safes, but duplication and separation are the best solutions for long-term storage.

You may make a friend of a small businessperson if you point out that the sheet metal file in which the records are stored is not fire-safe. If the accounts receivable records are lost, it will be difficult for that businessperson to collect money owed. This is often a fatal blow.

Medical records are stored in paper files on open metal shelves. Ask your doctor for a copy so you can have a duplicate. Who actually owns the medical records is a tangled legal point. However, doctors will make a copy for another doctor, and personally I would not be too enthusiastic about a doctor who refuses to provide me with a copy.

One of the best arguments for fire protection with industrial management is continuity of operation. Planned recovery is essential. Other types of operations are not necessarily receptive.

When Montgomery College first computerized its records, 1 pointed out to the manager a number of serious fire protection deficiencies. His reply: “The fire inspector had no problem.” I said, “The fire inspector’s chief function is to see that your people can get out alive in case of fire. You, not the fire department, are responsible for the integrity of these records.” He was not impressed. I advised my students to save every scrap of paper they received from the college.

The records of thousands of veterans were lost in the Military Records Center fire near St. Louis in 1973. One man was dragged from a wedding by MPs as a deserter. In fact, he was honorably discharged.

With this column we bring to a close the series started in April 1989We have examined the subject of fire loss management as compared to a slot machine with three independent wheels—cause, extension, and management.

In addition to the specific factual material presented, I offer the position that fire prevention by itself is not the answer to the fire loss problem, and it is possible that the term may be self-defeating. Despite the best efforts, fires occur, and the outcome then depends on the other two wheels of the fire slot machine— extension and management *




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After the spectacular First Interstate fire in Los Angeles in 1988, passage of a sprinkler law for new and existing high-rise buildings in California seemed a sure thing. A law passed by the state legislature was vetoed by the governor, however, and a replacement law was heavily opposed and has been in the inactive file since early 1990.

It is very likely that many of the “bottom line” types who believe that sprinklers are financially unjustifiable occupy the top “executive” floors of high-rise buildings. Direct descendants of the White Star executive who fled the sinking Titanic in an almost personal lifeboat, they probably believe that they will escape a disaster by helicopter. It might be useful if fire departments announced that all plans for helicopter rescue have been abandoned and that all must find their way to safety down toxic-smoke-choked stairways. At the least the information on stack effect provided in Chapter 11 of Building Construction for the Fire Service might be used to convince the brass that the top floors are often the most hazardous.

Many argue that the sprinkler investment is unjustified since a massive loss of life is improbable. If this is so, then it should not be unreasonable to require management to purchase an indemnity policy of SI million for each person killed in a fire that claims more than 10 lives. If the risk is so negligible, the cost of the policy, therefore, should be negligible.

Architects who are code experts often can get around sprinkler requirements. Because of the loss of firefighters’ lives in cellar fires, some cities have required sprinklers for basements in excess of a certain size, usually 2,500 square feet. The architect’s “smart” solution? Cut the basement into sections with fire walls so that no section is larger than the legal limit. Problem: The fire doors may be blocked or inoperative and may not function, so the result can be a much more difficult and dangerous fire.

Another “smart” solution? Keep a renovated building with wood I-beam floors barely below the height at which sprinklers are required.


When the owner demonstrates a lack of interest in firefighter safety, the situation requires creativity equal to the architect’s.

Drop phrases such as “surround and drown” and “big water show.” Firefighters also should consider creating an “improvised sprinkler system” using multiversal nozzles and other exterior devices as appropriate. Explain to reporters inquiring about sprinklers that water—not the sprinkler pipes—puts out the fire and that since the owner failed to supply the pipes, the firefighters are doing their best under the circumstances.

Many oppose sprinklers because they do not understand the threat of fire and the operation of sprinklers. The Byer Museum in Evanston, Illinois was destroyed by fire in 1985. Despite this, the curator of another Evanston museum was quoted as saying: “It is a questionable practice to have sprinklers in a museum. A sprinkler system could do more harm to an art collection than a fire, particularly if the fire were contained or the sprinkler system malfunctioned.”

The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D C. will not lend its art to sprinklered museums. The Smithsonian Institute actually was asked to return some works on permanent loan when the Gallery learned that the Smithsonian was being retrofitted with sprinklers. A highly qualified National Institute of Standards and Technology senior engineer pointed out to a curator the hazards to the artwork posed by the large accumulation of acrylic plastic in the National Gallery’s workshop and was rudely dismissed.

The valuable exhibits in a Canadian museum, on the other hand, are protected by sprinklers, although for some reason the lounge and gift shop are not. The contents of these areas could provide enough smoke to cause extensive damage to the exhibit area. The heat might operate sprinklers that would not be hitting any fire. Such “economy” or “selective placement” is penny-wise and pound-foolish.

Librarians generally have a dread of water damage and often are opposed to sprinklers. Among their typical arguments are: “The water will wash the paper classification labels off the backs of the books.” “Books are hard to burn.” “We’ve never had a fire.”

When asked what they expect the fire department to use to put out the fire, they mumble, “Chemicals, I guess.”

The major concern is not for the ordinary branch library, which has replaceable books, but for the main library that houses extensive and generally irreplaceable collections.

The Los Angeles City Library fire illustrates the reasons that libraries should be sprinklered. This massive monolithic concrete structure was built in 1926. A concrete “fort” enclosed book stacks and racks for book storage. Upward ventilation was provided throughout the stacks to prevent mildew. It would be hard to imagine a better “built-to-burn design,” but it is typical of libraries. Not only did the design of the Los Angeles library permit the fire to extend, but the open construction also caused water to flow down and wet the books below. The arsonist ignited the tops of the book stacks, and it took 1,250,000 gallons of water to extinguish the fire, which caused about $20 million in damages. The initial fire would have been controlled or extinguished by two or three sprinklers.

The only solution for libraries is full automatic sprinkler protection. Librarians should be informed that all the stack areas of the Library of Congress contain sprinklers with cycling on-off heads. Even so, because its passages and stairways are even narrower than those found on a ship and it would be difficult to vent, a fire in this library would be a tough fight.

Note also that older libraries often used marble for stack flooring. If unsupported, as in the main building of the Library of Congress, marble can look good after heat exposure but fail under a firefighter’s weight.

Library stacks are perfect mechanisms for spreading fire. These racks store combustible material; they have no fire separation between levels. In addition, ventilation is almost impossible, spaces are very constricted, and passages are tight. The heat, moreover, is extreme. Forty engine companies, used in rotation, operated two lines to keep injuries low during a fire at the Yeshiva University Library in New York City.

Libraries are very vulnerable to arson, especially by delinquents or disturbed persons with a grievance. Arson is responsible for as many as 85 percent of library fires.


  • The sprinkler system will discharge during a trifling fire. In fact, it takes a sizable body of fire to trip a conventional sprinkler head. In some
  • cases the sprinklers should be supplemented with other fire protection measures. If the fuel for the triggering fire happens to be valuable artwork, a serious loss could occur in the first few minutes.
  • The entire building will be drowned when the sprinkler goes off. In ordinary systems, the heads go off one at a time—not all at once. (Only in deluge systems for flammable liquids do all the heads discharge at once.)
  • Water does more damage than
  • fire, this is not true. There is no “water damage” at a total loss. Wet material has been salvaged; heat-damaged or burned material is destroyed. The aircraft carrier USS Constellation in I960 suffered a devastating fire. Many computers soaked with salt water and subjected to freezing temperatures for months were recovered. The burned and heat-damaged computers were not. Actually, the major cause of damage in many of today’s fires is the greasy black smoke created by burning plastic.
  • Pulling a manual fire alarm box will set off all of the sprinklers. At times the efficiency of sprinklers can he deceiving. Consider a one-head operation that snuffs a fire. The amount of burned material is relatively small. If the sprinkler flows 15 minutes, a reasonable time, about 225 gallons of water are dumped. The observer has no idea of what the fire damage might have been had the sprinklers not intervened.

All fire department personnel should be made aware that their careless comments made to the media could cause serious damage, as could comments by uninformed occupants. The fireground commander should make it a point to explain to reporters how the sprinklers contributed to the success of the operation.

  • The pipes might leak. Sprinkler piping is tested to 175 psi after installation. No domestic piping is tested in this way. If sprinklers are undesirable
  • because they might leak, then logically all plumbing also should be eliminated. A properly installed system is supervised, which means that an alarm will sound and the fire department will respond when water flows. No such alarm is provided on domestic piping. Sprinkler leakage losses are minor and usually are due to freezing or careless use of lift trucks.
  • Smoke is the big killer, so smoke detectors are better. Detectors and sprinklers are needed. A smoke detector does nothing to suppress the fire that is generating the toxic smoke; sprinklers suppress the fire and the production of smoke. Sprinklers, however, are slow to operate on a smoldering fire that is generating toxic gas. So detectors are necessary for life safety, especially in sleeping occupancies, even though the sprinklers will control the fire as soon as it breaks out. The NFPA has no record of a multiple-death fire (a fire that kills three or more people) occurring in a completely sprinklered building where the system was properly oper-
  • ating except in the case of an explosion or flash fire, or where firefighters or plant employees were killed during fire suppression operations.


Even we in the fire service accept to varying degrees a number of misconceptions about sprinklers. They include the following:

  • The building is sprinklered— there is no problem. Sprinklers are not the universal remedy for all fire problems. I have seen firefighters dismiss the hazards represented by ceilings of burlap and other high flame spread materials because “it’s sprinklered.” It is very doubtful whether the sprinklers would operate under these conditions in time to control the flame spread. Expert testimony at the trial following the Six Flags Great Adventure tragedy was that the sprinkler technology available at that time would not have controlled the fire and saved the lost lives. Unfortunately, the correct conclusion was ignored in the furor that followed: If a
  • life hazard cannot be controlled by sprinklers, the hazard should not be permitted to exist.
  • Sprinklers should be shut down as soon as possible—to prevent excessive water damage or to “clear the air.” Factory Mutual statistics show that premature closing of sprinkler valves by firefighters was a major factor in 23 fires occurring within a period of 10 years that produced losses of S43 million in 1986 dollars. When a sprinkler system is controlling a fire, cooled gases often are driven downward and obscure vision. Sprinklers should not be shut down as long as hot water is coming down and there is visible fire. Also, the firefighter who shuts a valve should be in full fire equipment and remain at the valve with a radio so that the valve could be opened instantly if fire breaks out.
  • Residential sprinkler systems (13R and 13D) are the same as other sprinkler systems. They are not. They are equipped with quick-response sprinklers, intended to limit flashover and to hold a contents fire until the occupants can escape. While there have been a significant number of successes with these systems, the structure is only partially sprinklered. Sprinklers are omitted from certain areas to keep costs down and to make the systems acceptable to builders. The presence of these residential systems can be particularly significant if used in a multiple dwelling that has truss floors or in a building that has interconnected voids such as occur in rehabilitated buildings with lowered ceilings.

Some object to the term “partial sprinkler system.” They argue that this term should be applied only when sprinklers are omitted from areas that are vulnerable to fire. While the 13R and 13D systems are based on data that indicate the omitted areas are not vulnerable to fire, it is possible that the data base does not contain information relative to the combustible truss void that exists in truss-floor buildings.

It is a fact that fires originate in void spaces that would be unprotected by sprinklers. Electrical fires and failures of metal fireplace flues are only two of the possibilities.

I served for several years as a consultant to the National Bureau of Standards (now NIST) to determine the reasons fires in combustible multiple dwellings extended beyond the area of origin. A number of fires started in or very early extended to void spaces, which would be unsprinklered under Standards 13R and 13D.

In years past the sprinkler industry did little or nothing to overcome the public’s negative perceptions of sprinklers. Promotion of sprinklers was left to the public fire protection forces and the insurance industry.

More recently, the sprinkler industry has supported “Operation Life Safety,” a consortium of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, the U.S. Fire Administration, and the private sector. Its purpose is to champion the increased use of quick-response sprinkler systems in all types of residential properties — from homes to high-rises.