Operations in Sprinklered Buildings

Question: What are your operational considerations when responding to an alarm or a fire in a sprinkler-protected occupancy? Has a sprinkler system ever created unique challenges for your department?

When I first came on the job, we had quite an extensive emergency procedures manual. I gave assignments to the responding units on their arrival, a system known as preincident assignment. When we established our incident command system (ICS) in 1988, we eliminated all procedures that diminish from the first-in officer’s prioritizing assignments based on the situation (incident-specific assignments) and not on who arrived first.

In the old manual, a procedure stated that the first-due engine took the sprinkler connection on any fire involving a protected building. The second-in engine then took the standpipe connection if there was one.

Today, we allow the first-arriving officer to determine who will secure the sprinkler system according to the situation. Under most circumstances, we would expect the first- or second-in engine to be told to lay into the connection. However, we have no hard-and-fast rule as to when the system is hit.

In 1985, Toledo experienced a nine-acre fire under one roof at a sprinklered warehouse facility. The fire spread quickly and, as Murphy’s Law would have it, there was a delay in hitting the system because minimal smoke was showing on the first unit’s arrival. Eventually, the system was hit. However, at about the time the system was hit, the order was given to shut off the gas supply to the building at the curb. The chief (no ICS then) failed to realize that the sprinkler system pump was powered by natural gas. Consequently, when the gas was shut off, the fire pump was also shut off. Several days later, we left the ruins and began the process of answering lawsuits. That process lasted more than 10 years.

— John “Skip” Coleman, assistant chief, Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue, is author of Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer (Fire Engineering, 1997) and Managing Major Fires (Fire Engineering, 2000), a technical editor of Fire Engineering, and a member of the FDIC Educational Advisory Board.

Ron Hiraki, assistant chief,
Gig Harbor (WA) Fire & Medic One

Response: Knowing which buildings have sprinkler systems and being familiar with the systems are critical operational considerations. When a building has a sprinkler system, firefighters need to know which portions of the building are protected by the system and where the fire department connection (FDC) for the system is located. In some large or renovated buildings, the sprinkler system may be divided into zones or may be separate systems. Needless to say, firefighters have to know what they have to work with and which FDC to supply to augment the system. As a fire department with limited staffing, our challenge is to ensure that the FDC and hydrants are near a main entrance to the building.

We have an excellent preincident planning system. Our firefighters are very self-disciplined about consulting the preincident surveys en route. The plans indicate the areas protected by the sprinkler system, as well as the location of the FDC and riser valve. Prevention Specialist Steve Bowman conducts code enforcement inspections for buildings in Gig Harbor and updates preincident plans when necessary.

At fires in buildings with sprinkler systems, firefighters need to remember to supply water to the FDC to augment the system. When there are no visible signs of fire, this may include assigning and positioning one engine company to the FDC. When there are obvious signs of fire, the fire officer will have to determine the priority for laying attack lines vs. charging the sprinkler system FDC.

Rick Lasky, chief,
Lewisville (TX) Fire Department

Response: Our first rule is to keep in mind that even though a building is sprinklered, the chance of having a fire in the building is not eliminated. Building systems have been shut down for repairs or by arsonists, or have malfunctioned for one reason or another, providing an opportunity for a fire to grow, at times to a size that overwhelms the system. Don’t be misled by this statement. If we had our way, we would sprinkler every building in town. Some fire departments, on receiving an alarm in a sprinklered building, will sit back on their heels and say, “Oh, that’s a sprinklered building” and let down their guard. As great as sprinkler systems are, nothing is foolproof. You always have to be prepared and maybe even a little suspicious if you want to keep your members safe.

Also, there is nothing to say that you don’t have a fire in an area not protected by a sprinkler head, such as in an attic or a concealed space. We had two in one day. One was a lightning strike that started a fire in a concealed space behind the fireplace and ran up to the attic. When the first companies arrived, fire was through the roof. Again, the thought here is to rely on sprinklers to provide a means of egress for an occupant in a residential setting and hold the fire in check until the fire department arrives (this applies to a commercial setting as well). If we’re lucky, the fire will be extinguished on arrival.

Operationally, the first-due engine initiates the investigation or attack (nothing showing with their tools and a pressurized water can/smoke or fire showing with their tools and an attack hoseline or high-rise pack in a standpipe-equipped building). The second-due engine will support the system; all others will take on the tasks, as they do with any other reported structural fire response.

As for challenges (aside from the incident described above with a fire in a concealed space and attic), one is the difficulty of removing smoke vertically while waiting for the system to be shut down to prevent further water damage to the contents and structure.

Thomas Dunne, deputy chief,
Fire Department of New York

Response: For a fire in a sprinklered building, our procedures require that a 3 1/2-inch hose supply the sprinkler siamese connection. If there is no standpipe in the building, a handline will be stretched first to attack the fire, and the second line will augment the sprinkler system at 150 psi. Pressures may be adjusted to meet the system requirements. Later-arriving engines may supply additional lines as needed.

Sprinkler systems call for a few safety precautions. First, SCBA use is mandatory because of the high carbon monoxide levels present. In addition, there must be careful control and communication when the system is shut off. Only our incident commander (IC) can order the shutdown of the control valve after the fire has been knocked down. The firefighter operating the valve must maintain radio contact should the valve have to be immediately reopened.

Many sprinkler responses turn out to be false alarms attributed to broken pipes, surges in water pressure, or defective alarm devices. However, you should treat each run as a potentially serious fire. We have experienced advanced fires, injuries, and fatalities as a result of systems that were illegally shut down or were otherwise inoperative.

A close examination of these systems should be an integral part of all fire prevention inspections. Note which sections of the building are sprinklered, the locations of the siamese connections and shutoff valves, and if they are properly labeled or color coded. Take a good look at the siamese. On occasion, we have found metal cans, pieces of glass, and even hypodermic needles shoved into them. Years of renovations in some of our older loft and commercial buildings have left layers of paint on some sprinkler heads, affecting their ability to operate efficiently.

A well maintained sprinkler system will stand guard for a long time. A number of years ago, a sprinkler system extinguished a fire in one of our old commercial buildings. On examination, it was found that the sprinkler head had been installed about 70 years before. It sat there all that time just waiting to do its job—protecting civilians and making our operation much easier and safer.

Jeffrey Schwering, lieutenant,
Crestwood (MO) Department of Fire Services

Response: Operational considerations are similar whether the building is sprinklered or not. The company officer must have a mental picture of the structure, to begin to formulate a safe plan of attack. Type of construction, life safety, fire load, and water supply are at the top of the list for all buildings for an alarm or a working fire.

Buildings have a sprinkler system for a reason. As a company officer, it is my job to know why the building has a sprinkler system—i.e., life safety hazard, fire load, or construction type—and educate my company on the workings of the building and the system. We must know where to get a water supply and which company hooks up to the FDC. As an example, my department has a shopping mall with several connections that supply specific areas of the mall. A working fire in the mall and a lack of knowledge of the proper connection could be a disaster for the suppression and search companies operating inside.

Although my department has been fortunate and hasn’t had any unique challenges with sprinklered buildings, some of our neighbors have. We assisted on a commercial structure fire where the sprinkler system had been maliciously tampered with. The fire went to several alarms, with a predictable outcome. Fortunately, no firefighters were injured.

Training and preplanning are integral to our operational considerations for all structures, but especially in sprinklered occupancies. Our goal is to make the incident safe for firefighters and civilians.

Craig H. Shelley,
fire protection advisor

Response: Although sprinklers help to control fires and, in many cases, nearly extinguish the fire, they do create operational challenges for fire departments. One of the challenges I faced while responding as a firefighter to a sprinklered building was the loss of visibility caused by the smoke, steam, and water discharge. I always preferred to be able to see the fire clearly. In many cases, the sprinklered area was a cellar or basement, further compounding the visibility problem. In addition, many times I noticed a false sense of security in firefighters. Because the smoke appeared to be light and breathable (this was before mandatory use of SCBA), firefighters entered the fire area without donning their SCBA. The sprinklers, however, caused the gases of combustion to cool, and carbon monoxide was present at the lower levels where firefighters were working. Many firefighters were overcome by this carbon monoxide.

When responding to a fire in a sprinklered building, it is a must that the sprinkler system FDC be supplied immediately. This allows the sprinkler system to be maintained and to continue to operate on the fire in case of a system malfunction. In addition, fire departments must know how to operate the building’s fire pumps. Many times, fire departments may shut down the sprinkler system prematurely, and the fire does not remain controlled. It is best to advance on the fire location with a charged hoseline prior to shutting down the system. Once the fire is extinguished, return the system to a normal operating condition before you leave the scene.

Bobby Shelton, firefighter,
Cincinnati (OH) Fire Department

Response:Sprinklers have proven to be a valuable weapon in our arsenal against fire. Residential sprinkler systems are gaining wider acceptance and are being used in newer construction. When responding to an occupancy, residential or commercial, sprinkler systems must be considered. Preplanning aids us in locating the FDC and the drains and knowing the type of sprinkler system in use at the occupancy. These are operational considerations that must be taken into account.

Another consideration is the human aspect. A driver needs to be familiar with hydraulics to deliver the pressure needed to augment the system, if necessary, as well as friction loss, elevation, etc. In responding to a sprinkler-protected building, thought must also be given to salvage, water removal, and the personnel necessary to mitigate a sprinkler activation.

When it comes to challenges, in my estimation, the biggest one is water removal in high-rise buildings. On more than a few occasions, I have spent hours on runs pushing water; and, of course, there is never a drain nearby when you need one. That is the only real challenge I can see for which you cannot prepare. The salvage vacuum has been invaluable in this task, but it still takes time, effort, and a strong back to move gallons of water and return the occupancy to an almost normal state. Sprinklers save lives. When used in conjunction with early detection systems, they provide a first line of defense against property loss and, more importantly, civilian and firefighter fatalities.

Elby Bushong, battalion chief,
Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department

Response: Our operational considerations for a building with sprinklers are similar to those for an unsprinklered building—evaluation of the fireground factors, size and type of building, fire location and size, life safety concerns, and any special hazards. Once aware that a sprinkler system is in the building, we would attempt to support the system. Finding the location of the connections can be difficult. Assigning an engine company to locate the connection assists Command in getting the system pumped. Providing pumped water to the system with an uninterrupted water supply increases the water pressure and volume to improve the system’s effectiveness. The amount of property damage and the threat to life safety can be greatly reduced by the system’s operation.

The addition of a sprinkler system can also cause some additional dangers for our firefighters. In one 24-hour shift, we had two intentionally set fires in “super stores.” The crews had to find the best way to get to the seat of the fire through the cold smoke and people exiting the store. The size of the occupancy created a situation where firefighters had to locate doors on all sides of the building to be able to safely access the fire with a hoseline. The cold smoke can make the firefighters feel comfortable inside because there is a lack of heat. Crews must make sure they stay with the hose and not go through the approximately 250,000-square-foot store without being on a hoseline. Smoke conditions held visibility to less than 20 feet. Because the system had controlled the fire but was unable to put it out completely, smoke was continuing to be produced and fill the store. Once the fire was extinguished, the smoke had to be removed by mechanical ventilation. The building system, with the support of fans, would take hours to remove the majority of the smoke. A contractor had to remove the water that was throughout most of the building.

Scott Reichenbach, assistant chief,
Federal Fire Department, New Cumberland, PA

Response: Proper prefire plans are essential to any emergency operation. It is also vital to understand the types of systems in your jurisdiction.

Educating emergency personnel on system types in their response jurisdiction and how they function is vital. Personnel need to become familiar with the dynamics of supplementing and operating in protected structures. Training must focus on system operations and the environment responders will encounter when the system activates. Additional instruction should emphasize proper ventilation procedures. The definition and effects of “cold smoke” must be stressed. A cold-smoke condition can also alter tools such as thermal imaging cameras (TICs). Newer thermal devices are better suited for these conditions; older TICs can experience total screen washout in a cold-smoke environment.

I believe one of the most overlooked issues concerning interior operations is the impact water can have on the contents or stock. If the contents are arranged in a manner such as a storage facility, warehouse, or occupancy that supplies materials, the weight of the water alone can cause collapse of the stored materials or failure of the rack systems containing the stock.

Good communication is vital for safe operations, and interior conditions must be updated regularly. The reduction of water damage is important, and we must be prepared to shut down the system when extinguishment is accomplished.

Stan Mettinger Jr., captain,
Brooksville (FL) Fire Department

Response:The first consideration would be to ensure that a connection to the FDC is made and the system is charged. Otherwise, consider the type of occupancy and the fire load. Although sprinklers are normally very effective, we have all learned from fires such as that in the K-Mart distribution warehouse that failure of other components of fire protection can lead to ineffective sprinkler systems. Additionally, occupancies that have fire loads exceeding those for which the systems are designed to protect are a cause for concern. Knowing where these buildings are and not developing a false sense of security or complacency is important. Not taking these facts into account could be disastrous in terms of firefighter safety and operations. Getting a hoseline in place rapidly to supplement the system is important.

Derek Williams, health and wellness captain,
Mesa (AZ) Fire Department

Response:Operationally, our department has several standard operating guidelines (SOGs) for responding to sprinklered occupancies. Most of the guidelines describe methods of supporting sprinkler activations, staying out of collapse zones while pumping sprinkler systems, pump stations, pump pressures, and so on. I imagine that our SOGs are not that different from most that address sprinkler systems.

From a safety standpoint, staying out of the collapse zone while supporting sprinklers is our biggest concern. Here in Mesa, we have a tremendous number of tilt-slab and concrete-block buildings. For these reasons, we emphasize collapse zones, situational awareness, and extended hoselines to the FDCs in our operational guidelines.

The greatest challenges we have with sprinklers occur most often when they are not working. We have an extensive fire inspection and preplan program and have found many system “issues” during these activities. In one case, a disreputable company had taken the pressure gauge and fixed the needle in the “80 psi” position to simulate pressure on the system and then never even hooked it up to a water source. Preplanning and inspecting structures are becoming increasingly difficult because of our rapid growth. One of the fastest growing cities in America, Mesa comes in at 60, and our bordering town of Gilbert is fourth. Out of the top 60 cities, seven are within the Phoenix metro automatic-aid system, so continuing to ensure that the sprinklers in our area are in proper working order will be even more of a challenge in the future.

Nathan Skewes, lieutenant,
Union Grove-Yorkville (WI) Fire Department

Response:All of our responses are the same whether for an activated alarm or a report of smoke showing. The main reason for this is to avoid complacency among the crews. If we get valid updated information during the response, we may downgrade it for safety concerns. Once we arrive on-scene, the first-due engine locates and positions the apparatus according to the FDC. If nothing is showing or there is a report of fire, the second-due engine will locate the alarm panel and try to make contact with the occupants. The second-due engine will leave the nozzleman back at the apparatus; in the case of an active fire, he can quickly deploy a line.

The next-due apparatus is the tower ladder, which will take the front of the building to allow for the most scrub area. The interior team assists with the investigation while the outside team does a building triage to formulate priorities, utilities, forcible entry, vent for life/fire, VES, ladders, and so on. Things to keep in mind besides common size-up of the structure are the problems we have had at the structure in the past. Often, repeat problems can steer you in a direction, but you must not allow yourself to get tunnel vision. The biggest challenge for our crews is to keep them proactive and not let them become complacent on these calls to which we respond time after time.

Randall W. Hanifen, lieutenant,
West Chester (OH) Fire-Rescue

Response: The operational considerations when responding to an alarm or a fire in sprinklered buildings begin with the same incident size-up considerations that exist for any incident, including fire, occupancy, building, layout of the building’s interior, arrangement of the building in relation to surroundings, resources responding and available, and any special circumstances. Additionally, if the building is sprinklered, we must consider these additional operational considerations: (1) Is the building fully sprinklered or partially sprinklered? If it is partially sprinklered, how are the areas divided? What type of sprinkler system is present? (2) How does the type of sprinkler system interact with the contents of the building and their arrangement—i.e. rack storage with ESFR sprinkler systems? (3) Is the sprinkler system a schedule system or a hydraulically designed system? A hydraulically designed system has very little room for error if a commodity for which the system was not designed is stored in the building. (4) What is the location of the FDC, and is it near a water source that is not part of the building’s fire protection system? (5) Where are the risers? (6) If the building has standpipes, are they supplied from the sprinkler system? If so, how long will it take to get supplemental lines into the building to prevent robbing water from the sprinkler system? (7) With regard to fire alarms, what is the source of the alarm? Is it a general alarm or a water-flow alarm? (8) Is the alarm on a certain riser? If so, what area of the building does that riser cover? (9) What is the history of alarms at the particular location? Complacency kills. (10) Ensure that the system is not prematurely shut off if it is an active fire.

These are a few of the important considerations when responding to an alarm or fire in a sprinklered building. A thorough training program that explains the operations and limitations of the fire suppression systems in your community is the only way to properly develop a list of considerations for the buildings to which you respond for alarms and fires.

David DeStefano, lieutenant,
North Providence (RI) Fire Department

Response: There are a number of considerations at the operational level when responding to fires in sprinklered occupancies. How do we know the structure to which we are responding is sprinklered? Currently, our dispatch system does not supply this information to responding companies. Members need to consult prefire plans en route or operate on the basis of first-hand knowledge of their response area.

The information we need to be aware of concerns the operational status of the system. Is it fully functioning as designed or under repair, renovation, or demolition? Is it a wet or dry system? Is the system fed by domestic water only or supplemented by a tank or reservoir? Can we augment the supply at an FDC?

On arrival and confirmation of a working fire, an engine company on the first-alarm assignment is responsible for augmenting sprinkler systems equipped with FDCs. In a combination sprinkler/standpipe system, the second-in engine company supplies water. In stand-alone sprinkler systems, the third- or fourth-in engine (depending on the alarm assignment) will supplement the system.

Conditions on arrival also affect our response in these buildings. Typically, we expect smoke banked down with little or no visible flame when a fire has been contained by sprinklers. We need to track the seat of the fire by following “popped” heads. If we encounter heavy fire showing on arrival in a sprinklered building, we need to consider a fire of explosive origin that overwhelmed the system or that sprinklers may be out of service for repair or incapacitated by sabotage. Members are immediately assigned to find and check the condition of outside stem and yoke (OS&Y) or post indicator valves (PIVs). In many instances, we need to consult preplans to obtain the location of these valves.

Additional considerations for sprinkler operations include the occupancy and construction type of the fire building. In large commercial or industrial facilities, we need to be aware of the water weight operating sprinklers have added to stored materials. Corrugated cardboard boxes, rolls of paper, or textiles stored in high-rack shelving can absorb tons of water, creating an overhead collapse hazard. You need to consider even stock at floor level when factoring in additional water weight on the integrity of the floor system.

Sprinkler control needs to be positively maintained during overhaul. Once the incident commander calls for shutdown of the system, a member is posted at the control valve closest to the affected zone in case the system may have to be reopened. These are some of the primary concerns of our members at the operations level when working in sprinklered occupancies.

Gary Gaffney, fire inspector,
Houston (TX) Fire Department

Response: Our department standard operating procedures (SOPs) state that the first pumper in with the first ladder truck will be the investigative unit; the second-in pumper will stand by the FDC. Not all sprinkler systems and standpipe systems are functional, however. The operational condition of a number of these systems depends on the property management and fire department and building department inspections.

Recently, I found a six-story hotel with a fire pump that was last inspected in January 2004 and a fire alarm panel that had never been inspected and was last serviced in April 2005. The company called in to fix the alarm panel found 23 smoke detectors that had their wires cut.

All that you may see as a working system may be misleading. Check your FDC prior to hooking up to ensure no trash, bottles, or cans have been pushed into the connection.

Kenneth E. Morgan, battalion chief,
Clark County (NV) Fire Department

Response:It is essential that any unit arriving to a response at a sprinklered structure ensure that someone is assigned to locate and prepare to supplement the sprinkler system, regardless of initial conditions. Although the system does not have to be charged, making the connection takes time. This delay can be minimized by locating the connection, the water source, and starting the connections. In the “investigation mode,” make the connections, and don’t charge the system. The worst case is a little hose to reload.

If conditions are discovered to be different during investigation or there is an indication of a fire, charge the system. Minimizing the delay can aid in confining the fire and reducing the potential of inadequate flow to activated sprinkler heads. These systems are designed to flow a small number of sprinkler heads, and any activated beyond that number are not getting rated flow and may be ineffective. Many structures have separate sprinkler connections for different areas of the structure. Preplanning these structures is a must. You will be ineffective if you charge the system to the wrong area. This may require several units to make appropriate connections.

We have no specific SOP for sprinklered buildings other than high-rises. The department’s Manual of Operations for High-Rise Responses has the first- and second-due engine companies joining for initial investigation/attack. The engineers from those companies work together to establish water supply to the sprinklers and standpipes. Many of our high-rise structures require pressures that single engines cannot safely attain. As such, both companies are assigned. Preplanning has established which of these high-rises requires tandem pumping, and pressures have been precalculated in our pump charts.

George H. Potter, fire service instructor,
Madrid, Spain

Response:Correct fire department operations at sprinkler-protected properties are essential to successful and safe responses. This means that every firefighter and officer must be familiar with the principles of sprinkler system design and functions. This does not mean that they have in-depth engineering knowledge of automatic sprinklers. However, they should have training in recognizing different types of systems (wet, dry, or preaction, for example) and practical experience in controlling PIVs and riser control valves, blocking activated sprinkler heads, and repressurization of systems, among other key subjects. National Fire Protection Association 13E, Recommended Practice for Fire Department Operations in Properties Protected by Sprinkler and Standpipe Systems, gives the most adequate guidelines. Factory Mutual also has useful guidelines, and many municipal fire departments have adequate SOPs on operations at sprinkler-protected sites.

The fundamental aspect of fire department operations at sprinklered properties is preemergency planning; knowing which structures in your district are sprinklered and the types of systems present, where the PIVs and control valves are located, the specific risks protected, and the extent and location of the water supplies. The list is long and necessitates a lot of leg and brain work. It does not take complicated computerized templates. Simple file cards filled out by hand but instantly available to the first-responding officers are essential. The more detailed computerized information should be available to the dispatcher so that he can communicate this information on request.

Probably the most curious experience involving sprinkler protection was in a multinational cardboard box factory near Barcelona, Spain, some 13 years ago. I had been involved in the reconstruction of the plant that had suffered an extremely damaging fire in January 1976. The old plant had not been sprinklered; Spanish building codes at that time did not require sprinklers. The reconstruction project included specific hazard protection by sprinklers, four hours of reserve water supply, hydrants, and so on, on a 10-inch interior-diameter closed ring main fed by NFPA- and FM-compliant pumps. In 1994, an uncontrolled forest fire led the police to evacuate the plant. The wildfire reached the unoccupied plant. The 100,000-square-foot property, sprinklers and all, was a total loss. The plant was rebuilt the following year.

Susan M. Kirk, fire prevention officer,
Warren County (VA) Fire and Rescue

Response:In our county, our operational considerations change only for residential structures with fire alarm and extinguishing systems. The change in response is in the number of engines and specialty pieces assigned to the call. Instead of our normal three engines, one specialty piece, a county fire chief, and a rescue company, we send only one engine on this call. Like most combination systems, we are still greatly dependent on volunteer staffing. Even under the best of conditions, it is sometimes hard to provide a full response on a working structure fire. This lessened response helps keep unnecessary pieces of apparatus off the road and still provides us the means to check the situation prior to calling the troops in for something as simple as the burnt food on the stove that is triggering the system.

We still have kept our full response for commercial occupancies, because we are facing a much greater life safety situation. We are now responding to a location that possibly may have several hundred employees, large fire loads, and complicated tactical issues. At this point, we can justify placing these extra pieces of apparatus on the road. From past experience, many of our large industrial structure fires have been dispatched and responded to prior to an employee from the site accessing the 911 system. When this occurs, we have already provided the greater response and now have more time to make tactical decisions, access our preplans, and provide optimum service to these commercial sites.

In recent years, we have also established a uniform preplan program for our commercial businesses and target hazards within the community. This has greatly increased our knowledge of the protection systems and sprinklered occupancies in our county. We have yet to preplan private residential structures, which, like many jurisdictions, have very few sprinklered dwellings in comparison with unsprinklered dwellings. By continuing to watch these trends through our fire prevention program, we are able to track our ability to provide proper response. Our department has found that by gathering information on alarm systems and fire protection systems in our commercial and target-hazard occupancies, we have a much clearer picture of the types of fires and hazards we may be facing during an activation of these systems. We believe in preplanning. We have seen its effective results in many areas of response to emergency and nonemergency calls.

Jeffrey Post, firefighter,
Submarine Base Fire Department, Groton, CT

Response:On responses to sprinkler-equipped buildings, the second-due engine is assigned to the sprinkler or standpipe riser. The connection of a minimum of two 21⁄2-inch supply lines into the riser connection is required. Several factors ensure the efficient outcome of this important task.

First, the officer of the second-due engine must know the location of the riser connections and if they are interconnected between the standpipe and the sprinkler. Second, the officer must coordinate the engine’s actions with the size-up and reports being given, in an effort to connect to the proper riser if multiple risers are serving different areas of the building. The team that makes up the sprinkler/standpipe supply company must ensure that the riser is clear of obstructions prior to connecting and that the hydrant supplying the riser is also free of debris. Failure to ensure the free passage of water or simply trying to flush it through can be catastrophic. Engines equipped with operating flowmeters will immediately indicate water flow problems, and a heads-up pump operator will alert firefighting forces and Command of this before it becomes a problem.

Frozen or inoperable fire hydrants can lead to a delay in operations. Many fire department connections are interconnected to the standpipe. Loss or delay in the only means of delivering water to the fire floor can severely impact operations; from that point, the department needs to be versed in alternate methods of supplying the attack companies. We try to leave an alternative method for supplying the upper floors with water, be it a rope stretch or committing the aerial’s waterway.

Caution should be taken not to shut off operating sprinklers until the companies that are to enter the area are supplied with water and in position. The sprinklers are operating on the fire, and we need to be ready to do the same prior to entering the area. As always, the IC should make it a high priority to coordinate ventilation and search.

Jimmy Taylor, battalion chief,
Cobb County (GA) Fire & Emergency Services

Response: When arriving on the scene of an alarm or a fire in a sprinklered building, I like to listen for the water-flow alarm. If the gong is ringing, there is a higher probability of a fire in the building. Next, I check the alarm panel for other alarms. If the panel shows only a water flow alarm, it will likely be a false alarm caused by a water pressure surge. An alarm panel that shows a pull station or smoke detector activation in addition to a water-flow alarm further increases the probability of some type of fire in the building. If this is a high-rise building, now is the time to call a second alarm.

Second is to determine if this is a combination sprinkler/standpipe system. On confirmation of a fire, an engine would be assigned to supply the FDC—in a low-rise building pump, 150 psi to a sprinkler system and 150 psi + 5 psi per floor of elevation in a combination system. If the building were a high-rise building with a combination system, a tandem pumping operation to supply the FDC would be ordered. The first engine would hook up to the hydrant using the five-inch and three-inch supply lines to maximize the water supply. The first engine will then supply the second engine using every intake on the second engine (these engines should be as close together as possible).

The second engine will put a siamese on each side of the FDC to supply four three-inch lines. Once this is complete, the first engine will pump 150 psi to the second engine, which will in turn add 150 psi for a total pump discharge pressure of 300 psi to the FDC, creating a two-stage pump. Assuming you have a 1,500-gpm pump, you will be able to deliver the pump’s rated capacity (1,500 gpm) to the FDC at 300 psi. Remember that we are trying to attain maximum flow at maximum pressure.

If for some reason the FDC fails or more water is needed, it is permissible to supply the building’s fire pump test header. The test header is on the discharge side of the building’s fire pump, just like the FDC. Inside the building, open the valve leading to the test header that keeps it from freezing before supplying the system. Supply the test header before opening the gate valves on the header, because the gate valves will be under pressure. The second engine should be able to supply its rated capacity at 300 psi to the test header. This operation will provide the flow and pressure needed to handle your situation.

It is important to supply the FDC any time the building is on fire regardless of whether the fire is on the inside or the outside. The tendency is to forget to supply the FDC when the fire is on the outside of the building or above the level of the sprinklers. Do not forget to supply the FDC in these circumstances. Supplying the sprinkler system at 150 psi is the best protection against lapping or autoexposure that can occur at exterior fires.

Skip Heflin, captain/training
officer, Hall County Fire Services Fire Academy, Gainesville, Georgia

Response:Our department has always relied on the third-in pumper to support the sprinkler system in a structure fire involving a sprinkler system. This is an unwritten policy. When performing company-level inspections, the systems are always inspected. During construction of new structures, the systems are also inspected by the fire marshal’s office. Our experience with sprinklers has been mostly positive; they usually do their job and keep the fire in check.

We have had several instances where they caused issues. One example was a fire in a commercial occupancy. A hazmat had leaked from a plastic container that melted as the result of a small fire nearby. The sprinkler system kept the fire in check, but it also spread the hazmat from the room of origin into adjoining businesses and even outside the building. It had a definite negative impact on the incident in regard to the hazmat.

One other challenge was a fire in an apartment complex. A single unit had a small fire that activated several sprinkler heads in the unit. On our arrival, the fire was extinguished, but the system was still flowing. The problem began when we attempted to cut off the activated heads. Typical sprinkler wedges did not work. We attempted to stop the flow at a riser, and that did not work. We ended up having to cut off flow to the entire building to stop the water flow. During all this time, the water flow caused major water damage to several units.

As a side note, when I built my home in 2000, I investigated putting in a sprinkler system. My insurance company advised me that I would double my premiums if I installed one because the chance of water damage from malfunction was higher than the chance for a fire. Until we get the insurance companies on our side, we will not be able to put residential sprinklers in our nation’s homes.

Paul J. Urbano, captain,
Anchorage (AK) Fire Department

Response: Here are some of our operational considerations:

  • Do not begin pumping before conducting a survey to reveal if the system is malfunctioning or is operating properly in response to a fire.
  • Make sure the control valve is open.
  • Ascertain the location of the fire and the number of operating heads. Most fires are held in check by a few operating sprinkler heads, and most property damage is caused by water.
  • Place a firefighter with a portable radio, forcible entry tools, bolt cutters, SCBA, etc., at the sprinkler control valves to monitor operations and deactivate or reactivate them on order from the IC.
  • Start salvage as early as possible.
  • Keep a pumper connected to the sprinkler system during overhaul and until the system has been restored or a watchman posted.
  • Protect the system from freezing, and have a building representative restore the heating as soon as possible.

One of our most memorable sprinkler challenges took place at a hotel. The call came in as a fire alarm. The first-due company officer accessed the floor where the fire alarm originated, where he encountered heavy water flowing but no smoke. He then requested an additional truck company. Then it happened: The entire hallway ceiling came crashing down. Fortunately, his company members were wearing their PPE and avoided injury. This was not a fire but a broken pipe that had frozen and burst. When it began to thaw, the problem presented itself.

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