Sprinklers Save Lives: It's That Simple

Automatic sprinkler systems have been used in this country for almost 125 years, but there still is a cloud of mythology that hampers fire departments in their efforts to protect more buildings with these proven lifesaving devices. The problem calls for an aggressive education program aimed at elected officials who are being fed a diet of false and misleading information by the special interests who always oppose sprinkler laws.

The latest battleground is New York City, where the fire department has proposed a revised code that would require sprinklers in all new construction, including single-family homes. The main target is high-rise and multiple-occupancy buildings and the FDNY also wants retro-fitting with sprinklers if remodeling costs are more than 30% of a building's value.

These proposals are the direct result of two recent high-rise fires that killed four civilians and three firefighters. The civilians died in a luxurious Manhattan apartment building; the firefighters were caught in a flashover in a Brooklyn housing project that had a partial sprinkler installation in the corridors. But for reasons that are still a mystery, the valves had been turned off and the system was not working.

No one would have died if these buildings had been fully protected by operating sprinkler systems. But the present New York code does not require sprinklers in apartment buildings. Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen told Firehouse®: "Sprinklers would have put these fires out in the rooms where they originated. There would have been no buildup of smoke and heat in the Manhattan fire and no flashover in the Brooklyn fire. No one would have been killed in either building."

Over the years, I have heard fire chiefs make similar statements after tragic disasters in hotels, nursing homes, nightclubs, schools, flophouses and apartment, office and factory buildings. I also have heard ignorant (or corrupt) public officials insist that sprinklers would not have made any difference in a fatal fire. In every case, they were dead wrong and the chiefs were right.

Records that have been kept for more than a century show that there never has been a multi-death fire (three or more victims) in a building that was fully protected by a properly installed, maintained and operating sprinkler system. The key words are "fully protected...properly install-ed...maintained and operating." A partial sprinkler installation is like a gambling game in which you bet where a fire is likely to start. Obviously, a poorly maintained or non-operating system is the same as not having any sprinkler at all.

It always has been an uphill battle to pass sprinkler laws because the builders, owners and operators who profit from these buildings don't want to spend the money. Instead, they've used their political clout to defeat new codes, or insert grandfather clauses that exclude existing buildings, or allow loopholes for "trade offs" that weaken sprinkler codes.

Many years ago, the late FDNY Commissioner John O'Hagen, a leader in the fire service's long fight for high-rise fire safety, told me how his sprinkler law had been "traded-off to death" by the politicians and building owners. Now, three decades later, another fire commissioner is fighting for a major code revision and the anti-sprinkler forces are spreading the same false statements.

One of the major myths is that insurance companies will raise rates because sprinkler malfunctions cause water damage. The truth is that insurance rates are reduced for a sprinklered building and the money saved eventually pays for a large part of the installation cost. As for water damage caused by breaks or malfunctions, the National Fire Sprinkler Association claims that in the course of a year, only one out of 16 million sprinkler heads will go off accidentally and spray water when there is no fire.

The real truth is that sprinklers save vast amounts of money. The current issue of Sprinkler Quarterly magazine reports on a study by the Plano, TX, Fire Department that shows a fire loss of $492,500 over a 15-year period in commercial buildings protected by sprinklers. The property loss in the same years for similar buildings without sprinklers was $12.3 million - almost 25 times greater!

When it comes to saving lives, nothing can equal or take the place of a sprinkler. The news media, the public and elected officials have to be taught that sprinklers prevent a delayed discovery and delayed alarm, while confining a fire to its point of origin, which prevents the buildup of heat and toxic smoke that is the killing ingredient in every fire. There are no statistics that show how many lives sprinklers have saved, but there is a long list of fires that have killed thousands of people in buildings that should have been protected by sprinklers.

Ironically, this country's on-going toll of fatal high-rise fires began in New York on March 25, 1911, when 145 people were killed in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. The investigation recommended sweeping code changes to require more exits, fire escapes and sprinklers. Eighty-eight years later, the FDNY is still battling powerful special interests to require sprinklers in every high-rise structure.

Similar problems exist in many American cities and you have to wonder how many more lives will be lost before mayors and city councils finally understand that sprinklers are not an option, but the essential, first line of defense against deadly fires in high-rise and other dangerous buildings.

Hal Bruno, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a retired political analyst for ABC News in Washington and served for 40 years as a volunteer firefighter.