Firefighter Safety and the Link to Fire Prevention

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.

Many jurisdictions provide licensing or some form of regulation on fire system installers or service vendors. The regulations have come about due to shoddy work from inexperienced or unqualified personnel working on very complex or at least very specialized fire suppression systems. For firefighter safety, it is important qualified personnel perform regular maintenance on these fire protection systems. Inspections, as mentioned above, should regularly verify required fire protection maintenance is taking place. All trained firefighters understand the role fire protection systems play in detecting and suppressing fire. There should be reasonable expectations from both building owners and fire suppression crews that the installed fire suppression systems will function as designed. Lots of money is spent installing these systems. It only makes sense to maintain and protect the investment, not just from the owner or manager's standpoint, but from the chief's concern for firefighter safety as well.

Many times throughout a year, particularly in freezing climates, systems are down for repairs or as a result of freezes or breaks. Unfortunately, some of these failures come from an initial poor design or lack of inspections. Others stem from changes in the use of the occupancy or building. In either case, fire suppression system malfunctions that result in shutdowns can often be forgotten or overlooked. It is very important fire departments devise ways of receiving notification of out of service fire protection systems and establish a method to follow-up and ensure the systems are back on-line as soon as possible. When a fire protection system is incapacitated the hazard or risk can be increased exponentially. Often the fire codes permit more hazardous manufacturing processes or storage practices to take place simply because a fire suppression system is installed. Frequently, a more hazardous situation is allowed to even exist because of the reliance on the functioning fire suppression system. Therefore, for firefighter safety, it is imperative that these non-functioning systems be brought back on line as soon as possible; not only for the operators or users of the building or facility but for the fire suppression crews responsible for protecting the building. Firefighters assume fire protection systems are going to function as designed when they enter a building. They should have no reason to assume otherwise if the fire prevention bureau is doing their job.

Time after time we learn about major fires occurring in our country that "should never have happened". Studying these fires, we see similar themes over and over.

  1. A fire suppression system was not installed or working properly. If the fire suppression system had been present, firefighters would never have had to be so aggressively involved in an interior attack or defensive fire suppression efforts.
  2. The building was being used in a manner not originally designed for.
  3. Fire protection systems were not properly designed.
  4. Inspections were not performed or were insufficient to detect and correct the hazard present.

Since none of these issues are really a surprise, then why do we continue to risk and loose firefighters to these events? Well, there are lots of reasons, many of which are outside our direct influence or control but they generally center around fire suppression systems. We must remain vigilant and steadfast in our commitment and efforts to protect not only our community but our firefighters as well. If a space station can be designed and built to avoid significant fire threats, we should work harder at putting our money where our mouth is. If firefighter safety is important, then our commitment toward overall fire prevention must be supported. Preventing or significantly reducing the severity of a fire is the best and most economical way of reducing the risk to our personnel, let alone our community. The extreme factual statement is...If there is no fire, how can a firefighter be hurt fighting it?