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Balanced Design

Building and fire codes have shifted during the last 30 years or so to an increasing reliance on fire sprinklers for the protection of lives and property from the ravages of fire – and away from a reliance on fire-resistive construction and compartmentation.

Much of this shift can be attributed to the economics involved – fire resistance construction and sprinklers each add to building costs, initially the addition of sprinklers was met with resistance because of the added cost. However, proponents of sprinklers were able to favorable report on the performance of their

product, so they also were able to advance the idea that by reducing
the amount of fire-resistive construction and its associated
costs, sprinklers would become more affordable.

No one will argue that when sprinklers perform as intended,
they are invaluable to the protection of property and lives. Similarly,
no one will argue that when the sprinklers fail to operate,
they are worthless. What is a matter of debate is how reliable
sprinkler systems really are. Virtually every claim extolling the
efficacy of sprinklers includes the qualifier, “Properly installed
and maintained.” Assuming these are the prevailing conditions,
the sprinkler industry and its proponents have successfully made
the case that sprinklers are somewhere between 96 percent and
99 percent effective.

But there are some major problems with accepting this premise
at face value.

Where’s the Proof?

Maintenance of sprinkler systems is not always mandatory.
Inspections may be done “in house,” depending on who’s requiring
the maintenance—and such inspections are
not foolproof.

We do not have reliable statistics on how frequently
the nation’s sprinkler systems are
inspected and maintained, or how many
systems fail their inspections before maintenance
is performed. Even when
inspected, sprinklers do not always function
as intended.

After a Brooklyn apartment building fire
killed three firefighters, The New York
Times reported on Dec. 20, 1998, “The
Fire Department checks the sprinklers
every five years, and last did so
in 1996. The Housing
Authority is supposed
to conduct monthly checks of the system.”

Also, a March 26, 1996, article in the
San Francisco Chronicle reported that
only 14 percent of the local 2,276 fire
and safety violations—including sprinkler
infractions—from the previous year
had been corrected.

All the data that have been collected
about the success or failure of sprinklers
in the United States have been offered
voluntarily and sporadically by the fire fighting
community, and is therefore
incomplete. An August 2001 U.S. Government
Accounting Office report,
GAO-01-879, “Fire Safety – Comprehensive
Information of Incidences in
Federal Facilities Is Lacking,” states that
there are insufficient fire incident data
to make proper recommendations for
federal fire safety measures: “The federal
government has no comprehensive,
centralized database regarding the incidence
of fires in federal facilities or the
causes of such fires. As a result of a lack
of centralized data collection and
reporting systems, relatively little assurance
exists that the government has sufficient
knowledge of the number and
causes of fires in federal facilities to take
appropriate action to protect federal
employees from the threat of fire.
For example, the Omega
fire sprinkler system
that failed in numerous
locations and in
laboratory tests as early as
1990 was not recalled
until 1998 and has
only recently been replaced at some major government facilities,
such as the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress.”

The report also explains that the National Fire Protection Association,
the body that publishes industry cited figures on fires,
obtains its data from the National Fire Incident Reporting System,
a national database through which local fire departments
report annually on the numbers and types of fires that occur
within their jurisdictions, including the causes of those fires.
Reporting, however, is voluntary; according to the U.S. Fire
Administration, this results in about one-half of all fires that
occur each year being reported.

More Problems With Sprinklers

Several issues have come to light in recent years that suggest these
systems are not without their weaknesses. The U.S. Consumer
Product Safety Commission issued three press releases between
August 1999 and October 2001 announcing its efforts to have
67 different models of sprinkler heads recalled, totaling more
than 37 million sprinkler heads. The reported manufacture of
these sprinkler heads dates from 1961 through 2001.

Also, there has been an increase in the occurrence of Microbial
Induced Corrosion that can completely disable a sprinkler system.
MIC first reveals itself as pinhole leaks in the supply pipes
to the sprinklers. These pinholes are the result of several types
of bacteria that have attacked and corroded through the interior
of those pipes, rendering them incapable of delivering enough
water for effective sprinkling, and providing enough loose material
to clog the sprinkler heads. This is yet another reason why
sprinkler systems need to be tested on a regular basis.

An investigation of an April 30, 1998, fire
in a nursing home in Lamoni, Iowa, indicated
the total failure of the sprinkler
system. The system’s branch line was
severely corroded and partially
plugged due to MIC. According to
Iowa State Fire Marshal Roy Marshall,
further testing of sprinkler systems
in healthcare facilities revealed
that one-third of all systems had some
degree of MIC.

Human Error?

To err is human, and sometimes it is the human element that is to blame for sprinkler system failures. People have been known to leave water valves closed, paint over sprinkler heads and put objects between the sprinkler and the potential burning target, increase the fuel load beyond the design
capacity of the sprinklers, and move around
walls that create unsprinklered areas incompatible
with the designed dispersion pattern.

The New York Times article mentioned
earlier explains: “Crucial valves in the
sprinkler system at a Brooklyn apartment
building where a fire killed three
firefighters on Friday [Dec. 18, 1998]
may have been closed for years, perhaps
even since the building was built in 1983,
Human Error? city officials said yesterday. They said the sprinklers
in a twin building were also improperly shut

More recently, The Baltimore Sun ran an item on Feb. 4, 2001,
with the following: “The folders on top of the cabinets in the
County Circuit Court file reported, “The Palomar Hotel
room reach so high they almost brush fire in Hollywood was caused
the sprinklers—a clear violation of fire

Anecdotal evidence also shows that
arsonists who fail to burn down targets
due to the presence of sprinklers have
later succeeded by disabling those systems.
With the recent spate of terrorist
attacks, this becomes an even more ominous

Too Much, Too Soon

Even when the sprinkler system is working
properly, a fire with a larger than
expected fuel load can overwhelm it. On
Aug. 23, 2001, the Los Angeles Times
by an arsonist who spread
40 gallons of gasoline
throughout the building
. . . Fire officials said
fire prevention equipment
such as sprinklers
were functioning but were
overwhelmed by the speed
and size of the fire.”

Also, an insufficient water supply
due to either a shortage created by
fighting several fires at once, or a break
in the supply line from either an accident
or a natural disaster-will prevent the
sprinklers from performing. An article in
the Sept. 5, 1997, San Francisco Chronicle,
“Faulty Water Systems
Blamed in Delta
Hotel Fire,” explains
that neither the standpipe
nor sprinkler systems functioned
due to lack of water in the

Clearly, relying solely on sprinklers for
fire protection can result in unnecessary
death and destruction. Long before the sprinkler was invented, fires were contained using compartmentation and fireresistant

Fire-resistant construction consists of
materials like plaster, gypsum board,
masonry, steel doors and dampers, fireresistant
sealants, fire-resistant glass and
many others. Fire-resistant construction
is also used to protect the structural steel
in steel buildings by preventing the steel
from overheating and collapsing due to
a fire. The premise of relying on such
construction for fire protection is that
when a fire occurs, the heat, flames and
smoke will be confined to the place of
origin long enough for the occupants to
guished manually, if need be.

The proponents of balanced design fully
support the use of sprinklers as an element
of fire protection. The Association
of the Wall and Ceiling Industries—
International and the members of its
Fire Safety Task Group believe that good
people with the best of intentions—
building code officials, the firefighting
community and the design community
have accepted a very compelling
argument based on incomplete or carefully
selected data. Thus, that acceptance
of this argument has led to an overreliance
on sprinklers instead of a balanced
approach to protection against the loss
sprinklers will eventually result in catastrophic
fires that could have been mitigated
or prevented by using a balanced
design of both sprinklers and fire-resistive

About the Author

Lee G. Jones is AWCI’s director of technical
services. Contributing to this article
were the members of AWCI’s Fire Safety
Task Group: Bill Carter of EL. Crane &
Sons, Inc.; Liam Coakley of C.J. Coakley
Co., Inc.; Jim Hagen of Fireproof
Coatings; Kevin Larson of Olympic Wall
Systems; Ron Prescott of Haas Insulation;
Amal Tamim of W.R. Grace and Kathleen
Taraba of Rolling Plains Construction/
One Source Firestop.

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