We received an overwhelming response of positive feedback on the last article which discussed fire sprinklers and their contribution to enhancing firefighter safety. However, we also had a few fire professionals who continue to disagree that fire prevention programs also addresses firefighter safety.
Continuing with fire prevention and the link to firefighter safety, we want to reinforce the importance of automatic sprinklers while emphasizing they are only a component of a fire prevention program and will only contribute to improving the level of safety for fire suppression crews if the sprinklers function as designed. Additionally, based on the feedback we felt compelled to reflect on the importance of mitigating or preventing fire hazards through other aspects of fire prevention by effective code enforcement.
Historically, the fire service places an enormous emphasis on operational training, which is important. However, if more emphasis were placed on inspections and automatic fire suppression system maintenance, our fire crew's safety could rise to a level well beyond any operational training we could provide. The simple fact is having no fires at all or a limited amount of fires eliminates or reduces risks that fire suppression crews take to save lives and reduce property loss.
Examining statistics from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) we see sprinkler systems can fail in protecting various buildings from fire. They tend to fail not because they are a poor choice for fire protection but because of reasons effective fire prevention programs can control. Some of the common reasons of fire suppression system failures are:
- System design is not appropriate for the hazard being protected
- Inspections do not adequately identify water supply deficiencies
- Maintenance is not regularly performed on the systems
- Systems are shut down for maintenance and never turned back on
- Storage practices or building use configurations change from the originally designed system
Initially, fire protection systems are only as good as their design. When a building is constructed, many parties are involved in the construction process. There are architects and design engineers who are responsible for creating the right "box" for the owner's use. There are sub-contractors who install the various systems, processes and components that make the building or "box" function as the owner intended. In the midst of all these different interests, there are numerous opportunities for miscommunication, bad assumptions and improper design. Herein lies the need for the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) to have a critical role in reviewing and approving the fire protection system designs, making sure the proper system works on the appropriate hazard. This critical role must be executed by the fire department's fire prevention bureau. Without this oversight, the potential exists for firefighter safety to be at risk due to substandard fire suppression system installation.
Once a building or facility is in operation there are countless opportunities for building construction, process operations, material handling and the like to take on a life of its own. Penetrations can be created in fire assemblies that allow smoke and flame to move through fire areas unchecked; construction development in surrounding areas may reduce the available water supply for the previously installed fire protection systems; manufacturing or storage processes may evolve to a more hazardous situation than initially planned and approved. Effective fire inspections are the only way these changes can be identified and corrected. Failure to provide regular detailed fire inspections that follow-up on the initial approved design concept increases the risk to fire suppression crews and potentially the adjoining properties. The importance of fire inspections cannot be overemphasized. Subtle changes as perceived by a building owner or operator can become critical fire safety blunders. Without technically competent fire safety evaluations and inspections, these can and frequently result in disaster.