Protecting Life by Automatic Control of Fire
How Automatic Sprinklers Preserve Life by the Quick Extinguishment of Fire in Non-Fire-Proof Buildings— Statistics of Conservation of Life by These Devices
MANY minds are hard at work on the problem of protecting life in buildings. To most minds this problem is complex, involving many intricate subjects, such as construction, exits, fire drills, fire prevention, protective appliances, and it is not surprising that even the trained engineer becomes bewildered. The business man goes further and assures himself that where so many remedies are proposed, he might as well take a chance of getting well without taking any of the medicine. That is, the difficulties and expense involved in improving his property are so great that he is forced to become a gambler in human lives. He finds that serious loss of life occurs in buildings that are better than his and he is still further discouraged. Yet, close at hand, and available for all types of buildings, is the one complete and satisfactory renjedy, the automatic control of fire by automatic sprinklers.
With this protection installed, the inside of the building becomes a haven of safety, not a place of fear. For years, we have been educating the public along illogical lines, first, that buildings should be non-burnable, and, second, that even if non-burnable, the only safe place is outside. Furthermore, this leads to a very unsatisfactory state of mind on the part of the property owner. If he has a building which complies with the average conditions of safety as to construction and provides reasonable means for the people to get out, he has done all that is required and his conscience is free and clear.
If there was no other solution than improvements in construction, exits, and manually operated fire extinguishing devices, we could work out these features to the greatest posible refinement, consider our work completed, and then say to the person who finds it necessary to go into such buildings: “We have fixed things as safe as we know how, but if there is a fire, you had better get out of the building as soon as possible by means of the exits which we have provided.”
Sprinklers Answer to Problem of Safety
There is a far better solution and infinitely more simple. Owing to the fact that most of our buildings are unsafe, or at least could be improved in important respects, the problem of making most buildings even reasonably safe would be a hopeless task, because of its complexity, if for no other reason, if it were not for the fact that automatic protection is available, and adaptable to all buildings. The automatic sprinkler system offers a complete and satisfactory answer to our problem of safety to life in buildings. In a building protected with sprinklers, we no longer need to tell the occupants that the only safe place is outside. They can know that they are safe inside for the fire will be controlled in its incipiency. We no longer need to make many of the changes in construction and protection which would otherwise be necessary. A building equipped with sprinklers becomes a fire-safe building.
Present Unsafe Fire Conditions
To illustrate the need for safety from fire I will attempt to paint a graphic picture of the present unsafe conditions. It is estimated that the present loss of human life by fire in this country is from 10,000 to 15,000 persons a year, and 250,000 in the past forty years. For this same period, property values to the extent of $7,000,000,000 have been consumed.
Those who know the conditions existing throughout this country cannot but wonder that the loss of life is not even greater. Criminal seems a mild word when we find, as I have, a number of men and girls in the upper floor of a four-story wooden factory building, of the flimsiest construction with open stairs and elevators and a wooden ladder nailed on the outside of the building for a fire escape.
We permit conditions in our factories, stores, schools, institutions and other buildings that should not be tolerated, and one reason they are tolerated is the general impression that it is difficult and complicated to make them safe. If the public only realized how simple is the answer, its opinion would influence property owners to provide for automatic control of fire.
Loss of Life in Sprinklered Property
Now let us consider what has been accomplished by automatic sprinklers in protecting life from the peril of fire. My guess is perhaps as good as another, and an estimate of 40,000 properties in this country equipped with sprinklers is probably conservative. It is likely that there are 20,000,000 persons daily under the protection of automatic sprinklers. Sprinklers have been in use for about forty years, and during this period the average number of persons in sprinkler-protected buildings has been at least 5,000,000 daily.
During the forty-year period there have been perhaps fifty lives lost by fire in properties protected by sprinklers, excluding explosions which wrecked buildings. Of this small number, I do not know of a single case where life would have been saved by any improvements or regulations relating to construction or protection. In these instances, life was lost chiefly because the fire was so quick that clothing became ignited before the person could escape; in other words, the accident was local, and the person injured or killed because of immediate proximity to the fire.
Some Typical Cases Considered
I think it will be of interest to consider the circumstances of some typical cases where there has been loss of life in a sprinklered property:
Grover Shoe Factory, Brockton, Mass., March 20, 1905, fifty persons killed. Boiler exploded wrecking entire factory, including the sprinkler system which, of course, was unable to control the fire which followed.
Automobile factory. A mechanic was at work under an automobile when in some way the gasoline which had been drained from the tank became ignited. There was a quick fire which so badly burned the man that he died soon after in the hospital. The fire was extinguished by sprinklers.
Pyroxylin plastic factory. Flash fire in pyroxylin plastic in a mixing machine, five persons killed. Sprinklers operated and extinguished fire with small loss to owner and contents.
Explosives factory. Explosion in varnish drying ovens. One person killed and one injured.
Oilcloth factory. Two firemen killed and twenty injured by collapse of wall of the building. Sprinkler system had been poorly constructed, and not in accord with the requirements of proper practice.
Smokeless powder factory. Fire occurred in mixing building where cordite powder was manufactured, which consists of gun cotton and nitro-glycerine. A charge in a mixing machine became ignited and two persons killed. The operation of automatic sprinklers prevented the spread of the fire.
Rubber cloth works. Fire caused by ignition of naphtha Two men fatally burned. Fire controlled by sprinklers.
Linseed oil mill. Fire originated in percolator building in which there was considerable naphtha and began with an explosion which wrecked the building. Seven persons killed.
Explosives factory. A violent explosion wrecked the building used for dehydrating nitrated cotton and killed one man.
Explosion in small building used for waterproofing materials consisting of rosin, benzol and alcohol wrecked the sprinkler system and burned a boy to death.
Corn oil products factory. Explosion in dust house wrecked sprinkler system. One man killed and eleven injured.
Maximum Measure of Safety
In all these years, with these millions of persons congregated in buildings of all kinds of construction, and used for all kinds of purposes, the automatic sprinkler has a perfect score in safeguarding life. It has accomplished precisely what it is designed to accomplish, and that is, to give the maximum measure of safety to the occupants of a building. It is true that buildings have burned Which were equipped with sprinklers, therefore it may be argued that loss of life might have occurred under such conditions. The sprinkler system may be entirely out of commission. We cannot avoid the human element entirely. We can only do what is reasonable in safeguarding any property. The chance of a serious fire in a sprinklered building is so small, that in all these years, it has failed to happen under conditions which resulted in loss of life.
During the past forty years, there have been more than 40,000 fires controlled by sprinklers, which probably represent an economic saving of fully $3,000,000,000. To this we may add another $1,000,000,000 as an estimate of the probable value of human lives saved to society. More than ten fires a day are controlled by automatic sprinklers in this country. Many of these fires occur under conditions which endanger life, and yet the slate remains clean. Against this is the almost daily occurrence of loss of life in properties not so protected.
Loss of Life Averted by Sprinklers
A case or two of loss of life averted by the action of automatic sprinklers will be of interest:
Fire started in the third story of a five-story brick building of quick-burning construction occupied for the manufacture of celluloid buttons. Thirty-five persons employed. The sprinkler system checked the fire. The fire department did not arrive until fifteen minutes after the fire began—delayed alarm. It was due to the operation of the sprinkler system that no lives were lost. Several persons were overcome, but revived by the water discharged by the sprinklers. Not a single person injured.
The account of another instance is taken from the Streator, Ill., Times of April 12, 1920:
“The effectiveness of the automatic sprinkling systems, with which several local factories are equipped, was demonstrated at the metal stamping plant yesterday afternoon, when the day watchman, Sam Smith, was saved from severe and perhaps fatal burns and the plant was saved from a tremendous fire loss through the automatic quenching of a fire which started in the machine shop when a gasoline burner exploded. The explosion threw burning gasoline all over the place, and the flames spread to the clothing of the watchman before he could escape. Wrapped in flames and alone in the factory at the time, Mr. Smith faced a serious situation. In a moment or so, however, he was drenched with water, three of the automatic valves on the fire prevention apparatus had given way to the heat and were pouring water about the room right and left. Mr. Smith was drenched in an instant, so was the space covered by the fire, and in a few moments the blaze was out.
‘‘Both fire trucks answered the alarm which was sent in, but their presence was not needed as the blaze was put out before they reached the plant.
“Mr. Smith sustained no serious burns, despite the fact that his clothes were caught by the flames. Before they could reach his flesh the deluge of water poured down on him from the valves which opened when the heat from the fire melted the lead tips which keep them shut.”
Some Statistics of Fires
The record of fires in sprinklered properties shows clearly the remarkable results obtained. I have combined the figures for the classes of property where great numbers of people are employed or congregate, and they show that 98.2 per cent, of all the fires have been extinguished or controlled by sprinklers, almost a perfect record.
Effect of Sprinklers in Some “Life Hazard” Classes *
* Taken from N. F. P. A. Quarterly, April, 1920.
In the illustrations, Fig. 1 shows a storeroom in a southern hotel in which a fire started but did not progress, as the sprinkler head shown opened and put out the blaze. This fire was caused by the carelessness of a servant, who placed greasy cloths on a radiator. Spontaneous combustion resulted and the fire soon opened the sprinkler. The charred wainscoting and smoke smudge attest to the effect of the fire, and the marks of the water to the action of the sprinkler-head. Fig. 2, lower picture, shows the Essex County Country Club, Hutton Park, West Orange, N. J. This old, historic and very combustible building was saved beyond doubt by an automatic sprinkler. The upper picture shows where the fire originated and also stopped, in the closet of this room. When the blaze had attained the proper proportions the head opened, the automatic alarm operated and the fire was extinguished long before the fire department arrived. Fig. 3 shows one of the rooms in a dormitory of the Sailors’ Snug Harbor, Staten Island, N. Y. In this instance the fire was caused by the carelessness of the occupant of the room, who left a lighted pipe in the pocket of his coat. If the sprinkler had not acted in this case the result would probably have been the destruction of part, if not all, of the institution, as a high wind was blowing at the time, and the dormitories are of quick burning construction.
Sprinklers Installed to Safeguard Life
Let us have laws covering construction, exits and similar features. They are necessary and proper. But the practical solution of present unsafe conditions will not be found in such measures, for we cannot rebuild our many flimsy buildings. We must find a remedy which is both simple and commercially feasible.
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Automatic Control of Fire
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Tust a word about the properties where the danger to life is perhaps greatest, and where automatic sprinklers have not been installed to any great extent because of the relatively small property value as compared to factories and stores. A very large percentage of all properties now equipped with sprinklers have been equipped because of the material saving in insurance premiums, and in some cases this saving runs as high as 90 per cent, which means that it is a good investment to install sprinklers regardless of their value as a protection to life and property.
However, with such classes of property, as dwellings, apartments, hotels, schools, colleges, institutions, office and public buildings, the saving in insurance is much less because of the relatively small property value. Moreover, the. insurance rates on these properties without sprinklers are lower. The need of safeguarding life in these classes of properties is most important.
An investigation was made recently of the fire reports of the N. F. P. A. to determine where fires start in schools, colleges, institutions and hotels. This brought out the fact that about 60 per cent, of the fires in these classes started in basements or working portions. As fires that start in these locations, particularly at night, are likely to spread and become dangerous, it would appear that sprinklers installed throughout these portions would reduce very materially the danger to life. If we also equip the halls, storerooms, stairways, elevators and other floor openings, the danger would be still further reduced.
In my opinion, the application of automatic sprinklers to classes of property where safety to life is the chief need, has only just started.
Experience has demonstrated beyond doubt that the automatic sprinkler system is the only feasible means of providing safety from fire inside buildings.
The 1921 budget for the Savannah, Ga., fire department will be $180,000, compared with $150,000 for 1920. The following new apparatus will be purchased during the coming year: One motordriven aerial truck, $12,093.00; one motor-driven pumper, $17,500.00; one motor-driven tractor for aerial truck, $6,294.75; extension fire alarm system, $2,100.00. Total, $35,887.75.