Roundtable: Fire Sprinklers and Fire Alarms

By John “Skip” Coleman

No one should dispute the fact that the United States is becoming a more litigious society. When I first came on the job, the term “sovereign immunity” was the norm. From a layman’s standpoint, that simply meant that the sovereign or state cannot commit a legal wrong and is therefore immune from civil suit or criminal prosecution. 

This changed in the late ’70s and early ’80s (coincidently, that period also saw the largest increase in lawyers in the United States, as well!) In fact, Toledo was involved in a legal case in the mid-1980s that has become a landmark case in the legal industry. This fire involved the Willis Day Storage company. To make a long story short, we burned down a 15-acre warehouse in one very long evening and morning. I personally went through eight self-contained breathing apparatus bottles at that fire before we exhausted our entire city supply (another story for another Roundtable.)  

Even with the increase in lawyers and lawsuits, we still do some pretty “simple” (meaning an absence of forethought as opposed to “easy”) things at fires. Again, when I came on the job, we were taught to replace sprinkler heads that were activated by fire. We would shut the system down, replace all the used heads, and then turned the system back on. As long as we didn’t see any leaks at the heads and the alarm didn’t go off, we went home and back to bed. 

Now, let’s look at that from a lawyers standpoint! What training do we have? Don’t certified sprinkler workers have to be certified? 

That brings me to this month’s question. Does your fire department allow firefighters to replace discharged sprinkler heads and re-set fire alarm systems that malfunction?

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Skip Coleman: Firefighting RoundtableJohn “Skip” Coleman Fire Engineering; a member of the FDIC Educational Advisory Board; and author of Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer (Fire Engineering, 1997), Managing Major Fires (Fire Engineering, 2000), Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer, Second Edition (Fire Engineering, 2008) and Searching Smarter (Fire Engineering 2011) and 2011 recipient of the FDIC Tom Brennan Lifetime Achievement retired as assistant chief from the Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue. He is a technical editor of Fire Engineering.


Christopher J. Weir
MBA EFO CFEI, Fire Marshal/Division, Chief
Port Orange (FL) Department of Fire & Rescue

Yes. Most of our firefighters and officers are certified as fire inspectors and can reset a fire alarm system once we check the building and give an all clear. However, if the fire alarm panel is showing supervisory/trouble, then we know there is a glitch in the system and the fire alarm service of contract is called to make the necessary repairs. Once the system is brought ito full operational service, I am contacted to sign off with the contractor of record. The sprinklers are different and it depends on the sprinkler activation. I have been called out to change a head to bring the system back on line. However, the sprinkler contractor service of record is called to respond to assure the system is correct and the system may be cleared by the contractor, or “red tagged” to note that a problem occurred and a repair order is submitted. Once completed, I am notified for follow up with the sprinkler contractor of record to assure the system is functioning normal. It is of note, the red tag remains for a period of time under Florida law until the system is due for its normal annual service. If the system checks out for the mandated annual service, a “green tag” is added to the riser.


Michael Allora
Deputy Fire Chief
Clifton (NJ) Fire Department

The Clifton (NJ) Fire Department recently adopted a policy that a responsible person from the business or residence must be on scene to reset the activated fire alarm system. This policy was adopted in response to litigation that put the fire department at risk of liability.

Our policy is that we are responsible for responding to activated alarms and ensuring that no fire is present at the location. Once the cause of the alarm is determined (smoke, steam, water leak, etc.) or our investigation reveals no apparent cause for the alarm, the building is cleared and turned back over to the responsible person from the occupancy. We will assist a person as they assume responsibility for resting the alarm.

In cases where an alarm is activated and no responsible person from the occupancy is contacted or is willing to respond, we will make a notification to the alarm station and leave the alarm active once the building is cleared by FD personnel.

The replacing of activated sprinkler heads or the restoration to service of an activated suppression system has been the responsibility of the building owner or occupant for as long as I’ve been on the department.

There are instances where it is difficult for personnel on scene to access all areas of a building. There is no perfect system short of a responsible person responding in a timely manner to open all areas of the building. We encourage commercial building owners to participate in our Knox Box entry system, where keys are provided to allow the FD access to all areas of a building 24 hours a day.

If a building has a monitored alarm system, they are responsible for designating an emergency contact who is capable or responding to an alarm to restore the alarm system to full service. The FD cannot assume the liability for restoring alarm systems on behalf of building owners.


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