“The Burned Building Had No Sprinklers!”
All-too-familiar tag-line found in fire department and Underwriters’ reports of large-loss fires should teach lesson
MUCH HAS BEEN WRITTEN, over the years, of the early history of fixed piping systems for fire extinguishment. Naturally, this goes back before the days of the automatic sprinkler when perforated pipe with the water manually controlled represented the fire protection of the day. The modern-day automatic sprinkler is, of course, a vast improvement over the crude early attempt to control fire through perforated pipe. History is of particular value when it teaches us a lesson that is profitable. Today, through the vast facilities of the Underwriters’ Laboratories and the Factory Mutual Laboratories, we know about the densities needed to control and extinguish fires in practically any type of material or occupancy. When you think of the record of automatic sprinkler protection over 50 years and look back, realizing that those early pioneers had to guess at the spacing of sprinklers and the water supplies required, I think you will agree that they did a most remarkable job. It is for this reason that we briefly summarize the history of sprinkler protection.
There was a report made by a committee on automatic sprinkler protection and adopted by a conference held in New York City on March 18, 1896. The committee and sub-committees were composed of the representatives of the insurance organizations with one notable exception—that was Mr. Frederick Grinnell, the founder and guiding spirit of the Grinnell Company. Since that meeting 61 years ago, close cooperation has existed between the sprinkler industry, the National Board of Fire Underwriters, the Factory Mutual Laboratories, the Underwriters’ Laboratories and all of the great insurance carriers. In 1914, the automatic sprinkler industry, to bring the best minds and talents available within it to solve their common problems, formed the National Automatic Sprinkler and Fire Control Association. For well over 40 years this association has not only worked closely with the insurance associations, but with their memberships on the various committees of the National Fire Protection Association, have aided in setting up standards which have been of inestimable value in the great cause of fire prevention and fire protection.
Sixty-one years have not changed the fact that the problems facing the science of fire protection, with particular reference to automatic sprinkler protection, are the same today as they were even before the turn of the century. The committee, meeting on that early spring day in 1896, relied on experience and tabulated facts gleaned from fires which occurred within the 10 to 12 years preceding that first meeting. To illustrate the similarity of today’s problems with the problems of yesteryear, we will quote from the records of that committee which had based its finding on information available to them covering a period of time from 1884 until 1896:
“Of the 56 fires, in which an unreported number of sprinklers operated, 33 are reported as being properly controlled by sprinklers; 19 resulted in severe loss owing to one of the following causes: (1) Fire originating in exposures; (2) fire originated in unsprinklered room; (3) no water for sprinklers, owing to closed control calves; (4) tank supply exhausted; (5) hollow walls or ceilings through whicl fire spread unimpeded.”
In six decades that followed this meeting to New York City, S100 billion worth of Anerican property and millions of lives have fallen under the protection of automatic sprinklers. To translate $100 billion into more understandable terms, first convert the money into silver dollars; then load them on box cars. The train would well extend over three times around the earth at the equator. This illustration suggests that automatic sprinkler protection is a paramount means of protecting American lives and property against destruction by fire.
—Photo courtesy National Automatic Sprinkler and Fire Control Association
—Philadelphia F. D. photos by Lt. Robert Kennedy
Any review of the progress made in the field of fire control and extinguishment during the last 80 years must, of necessity, encompass the story of the sprinkler and of automatic sprinkler fire protection.
Its vital part in safeguarding the nation against deadly, destructive fire, in preserving the lives of our citizens—yes, and our fire fighters too—is only partly told in the cold statistics of hot fires in all kinds of occupancies, where people live, work and otherwise congregate.
The record is written into the daily journals of municipal fire departments throughout the country—and the loss totals of fire organizations.
Notwithstanding its real and potential protective qualities, and all that this means to fire fighters, it has been said that the fire service has been lethargic in actively promoting installation of sprinkler systems, as well as automatic fire detection and alarm notification. This may be true in some unenlightened areas, but we have yet to meet a forethoughtful fire officer who is not conscious of the value of sprinkler protection and who did not personally advocate modern automatic fire control. Particularly since the beginning of the trek of people and industry into the hinterlands and suburban areas, with resultant demands upon inadequately equipped and staffed fire fighting forces, many progressive fire officers have come to look upon the sprinkler as their main reliance in coping with fires involving these areas.
True, there have been mistakes in planning, installing and maintaining sprinkler protection. There have been costly errors in operating sprinklers and sprinkler systems in time of fire. But most of these errors were human failures. In short, the sprinkler system is no better than those who must operate it. And it is possible that the fire service is more accustomed to hearing about sprinkler errors than about accomplishments.
Control and extinguishment of fires by automatic sprinklers in this day and age is becoming so commonplace that it is no wonder fire fighters are inclined to accept the modern sprinkler protection just as they do their latest acquisitions in fire fighting equipment. This is all well and good—but such complacency will not help bring about installations of more sprinkler systems, particularly in those hazardous occupancies not now so protected.
The editors of FIRE ENGINEERING would like to see a crusade on “piped protection,” i.e., modern automatic sprinkler protection, similar to the effective one presently being waged on loss of life by fire, particularly in the children’s category.
To help kindle greater interest in this essential medium of fire safety, the editors asked Mr. Seddon Duke, president of the Star Sprinkler Corporation and past president of both the National Fire Protection Association and the National Automatic Sprinkler and Fire Control Association, to prepare the paper which follows. Mr. Duke has not attempted to trace the interesting history of the discovery and development of what we call sprinkler protection, nor has he attempted to describe and picture all of the mechanical improvements that have taken place in sprinklers, i.e., the different type heads for different purposes; the ability to discharge not only water, but treated water and chemicals, water in the form of fine fog or coarse spray, foam and even dry chemical. All that is another story. What he has done is to condense for our readers the more fundamental aspects of the basically essential modern fire control and extinguishing systems.
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How effective is automatic sprinkler protection? Over the past 30 years sprinklers have extinguished or controlled 96.2 per cent of the almost 59,000 fires which have occurred in sprinklered occupancies, and have been tabulated and reported on by the National Fire Protection Association. This record is a little short of phenomenal but in this land of miracles, the difficult is done immediately; the impossible takes a little longer. We, in the automatic sprinkler industry, realize that the human element figures so strongly in this 3.8 per cent of inefficiency with which we are charged that only a national inspection service, better maintenance, more widespread use of central station automatic sprinkler supervisory service can help to close the gap.
The fireman’s role
The strongest and most important alliance in the field of fire protection today resides in the relationship between the fire services and the automatic sprinkler industry. As sprinklers have been called “the first line of defense against fire” and “the fireman’s best friend,” so the automatic sprinkler industry regards the fireman as its most important ally. Knowledge on the part of the men of the fire service can do more than any single factor to cut down the nation’s increasing fire losses. To reduce this to practical and concrete suggestions, the sprinkler protection program of the fire services may be envisioned as having three phases of considerations;
- Before the fire, or the inspection phase
- During the fire, or the fire fighting phase
- After the fire
First: Before the fire
- Know what properties are protected by automatic sprinklers within your fire district.
- Know where the control valves to the sprinkler systems are located and other important facts concerning the automatic sprinkler system.
- Know where the fire department or Siamese connections are located.
During periodic inspections, firemen should impress upon buildings’ owners, tenants and maintenance men the importance of system control valves being open at all times; a closed valve means that there is no sprinkler system. A large percentage of unsatisfactory performance is due to closed control valves.
Secondly: During the fire
- Immediately upon arrival, connect to the Siamese connection in order that supply to the system can be continued at pressure and volume.
- Be sure not to rob the sprinkler system by taking water from the system itself and diverting it to hand lines.
- If possible, check to make sure that all control valves are open.
- If the sprinkler system has a gravity tank and there is a department supply inlet, a hose line from the pumper should be connected to this connection and water supplied to the tank in the necessary amount.
- Be able to properly identify a post indicator and other control valves and be sure that they are open.
- Do not close any control valve until the fire is extinguished or until you are certain the fire is under control; then station a fireman at the control valve so that it can be opened immediately if the fire is rekindled. A large part of the 3.8 per cent of unsatisfactory performance comes from closing valves too soon.
- Contact the building superintendent or engineer if lacking information on sprinkler system, water supply, etc.
Thirdly: After the fire
- Close the control valve, again making sure that the fire is completely extinguished.
- Drain the system.
- Replace sprinkler heads where needed. In this respect all the fire companies should carry a limited supply of sprinkler heads on the truck, making sure the heads are of proper temperature. Note: Companies may profitably carry sprinkler tongs, plugs or wedges for shutting off individual heads in time of accidental opening.
- Close the drain valve and open the control valves, restoring the sprinkler system to operation. In the event that this procedure cannot be followed, it is recommended that a fireman be stationed at the building to see that the owner or tenant properly restores the sprinkler system to operation.
If these simple procedures are followed, both the fire services and the automatic sprinkler industry can be assured that the job to which they have dedicated themselves can be accomplished to a greater degree than has ever been possible in the past.
Enlightened and progressive fire fighters have come to accept, in recent years, the automatic sprinkler as their greatest ally.
Speaking before the International Association of Fire Chiefs at their annual convention in Miami, Fla., on November 12, 1956, Chief William Fitzgerald of Seattle, Wash., then president of that organization said:
“Fire chiefs by actual experience in the field know that automatic sprinklers supplemented by supervised fire alarm systems are the highest and best form of fire protection. Yet they, the chiefs, have done little in an organized way, not only to publicize this fact but to sell the idea to the nation and to invoke an international campaign aimed at installing automatic sprinklers and supervised fire alarms in every building that is a potentially large fire. I commend this to you as a field where we may reap the greatest fire protection dividends ever achieved.”
Chief Fitzgerald is only one of thousands of modern fire fighters who are attempting to face up to the realities of present-day needs of improved fire fighting and the aid which can be expected of automatic sprinkler protection.
The fire services today confront the greatest challenge in their history. The direct fire losses in buildings and contents alone last year exceeded $1 billion. Bear in mind that this is the actual fire loss paid. It is stated with authority that the intangibles exceed by five times the actual physical fire damage to any property; bear in mind also that these intangibles are paid for with the same kind of dollars. The task is of gigantic magnitude. The job of turning back this growing tide of fire holocausts is fundamentally yours. Automatic sprinklers can be your strongest ally. It is incumbent upon every enlightened fire fighter to push aggressively his own community toward codes and ordinances that will bring sprinkler protection to his fire district, particularly where loss of life is concerned.
To you fire chiefs I say sprinklers will enable your fire department to do a better, more efficient job. They reduce the danger from fire to not only the public generally, but also to you and your fellow fire fighters. They are the advance guard of the fire service. They are present at the fire’s inception. They go to work immediately and automatically, and discharge water only where the fire exists. Smoke, poison gases and heat do not intimidate them. Bear in mind when you approach a fire in a sprinklered property, on the ceiling of that building is a fire department with “charged” nozzles spaced at proper intervals. In this system of piping is just what you are bringing to that fire, namely, water. Bemember, when the alarm rings at your fire station and you know that a fire exists in a sprinklered building, the sprinklers will be there ahead of you, helping to make your job easier and safer.