The current recall of some 35 million sprinkler heads presents a serious problem for fire departments attempting to revise and upgrade their state and local codes. No one in the fire service doubts the effectiveness of sprinklers as the best and first line of defense in high-risk buildings, but any negative publicity shakes public confidence and provides ammunition for the politically powerful forces who always oppose sprinkler laws. It adds to the many obstacles that have to be overcome.
This latest recall is the result of a dozen incidents in which a type of sprinkler head manufactured by Central Sprinkler Company failed to activate. No lives were lost, but there was extensive property damage in several fires. Testing by the Underwriters Laboratories (UL) revealed that corrosion of an O-ring seal caused 26% to fail at a water pressure of seven psi - the National Fire Protection Association's (NFPA) minimum standard for sprinkler installations. However, 93% did flow at 40 psi, which is the average pressure of 85% of all sprinkler systems. With an estimated 700 million to 900 million sprinkler heads in service in the United States and Canada, it is a projected failure rate of only 1%.
Nevertheless, any sprinkler failure is one too many, especially when it may be caused by a design flaw. Many of these heads were used to replace the 8 million Omega heads that were recalled three years ago, also because of O-ring problems. (Omega is a Central Sprinkler product line.) However, unlike that recall - which was ordered by the Consumer Product Safety Commission - this one is a voluntary replacement program initiated by Central in mid-July.
"We started this replacement program because we know there's better technology," said Carmine Schiavone, vice president of Tyco Fire Products, which is Central's parent company. "We want to uphold the integrity of sprinklers and the fire protection community and we want to give our customers the best technology that's available," he told Firehouse®. Central is paying all costs in the replacement program and, like other sprinkler manufacturers, plans to stop using the heads that require O-rings. Last month, UL announced that it will not approve sprinkler heads with O-rings after next year.
The recall comes at a time when new sprinkler requirements are being proposed all across the country. With the school year underway, many jurisdictions are making a special effort to retrofit college dormitories in the aftermath of last year's Seton Hall University fire. The new national code, which 10 states have adopted, calls for sprinklers in a wide range of high-risk buildings and allows for money-saving trade-offs in terms of fire doors, fire-resistant walls, open spaces, exits, etc. It has caused some fire safety experts to worry that the trade-offs may be too many and too liberal.
Passing a sprinkler law never had been easy and it's extremely difficult to get one that is retroactive and covers existing buildings. Over the years, grandfather clauses that exempt older buildings have been responsible for thousands of fire deaths that could have been prevented by retroactive codes. You can be sure that the developers, builders, owners and building operators who oppose sprinkler laws will use this latest recall to spread the false story that sprinklers are unreliable and cannot be trusted.
Fire officers testifying at public hearings in support of sprinklers must be prepared to respond to questions about systems that failed. The answer is that sprinklers rarely fail; every hour of every day in every American city, sprinklers prevent small fires from becoming big fires. They confine a fire to its point of origin and prevent the delayed discovery, delayed alarm and fatal buildup of heat and smoke that are the killing ingredients in almost every fire disaster.
The fire service also has to counterattack with a media and public education campaign that tells the true story of how sprinklers have been saving lives and property for more than 100 years. According to the NFPA, sprinklers reduce fire damage from 40% to 70% in all types of occupancies. When it comes to life safety, records kept in the United States, Canada and Australia for the last century present overwhelming evidence that sprinklers save lives. It boils down to one simple statement: "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 installed, maintained and operating." A partial sprinkler installation that doesn't cover the entire building is like shooting dice to guess where a fire will start. Obviously, when a sprinkler is not properly maintained or is shut off, it's the same as not having any system at all. There have been recent incidents in which water supply problems or the lack of proper maintenance caused sprinkler systems to deteriorate. The greatest tragedy occurs when a sprinkler is shut off, sometimes for years, and the result is a fatal fire - such as one that killed three firefighters in a New York City apartment building in 1998.
This has led to growing concern within the fire service and the sprinkler industry over what happens to sprinklers after they're installed. There clearly is a need for more inspections, better maintenance, and warning devices that will alert occupants and firefighters when a sprinkler is out of service for any reason. The National Fire Sprinkler Association will commission a study of the problem and President John Viniello explains: "There is zero tolerance for sprinkler failures ... We don't want the record of more than 100 years to be tainted."
The latest sprinkler recall is a serious matter, but it's only a minor setback in the long history of sprinklers. The fire service should continue to be strong and aggressive in its efforts to put more sprinklers in more buildings. There are no statistics to show how many lives these devices have saved, but it's easy to count the thousands that have been lost in buildings that should have been, but were not protected by sprinklers.
Hal Bruno, a Firehouse® contributing editor, retired as political director for ABC News in Washington and served almost 40 years as a volunteer firefighter. He is a director of the Chevy Chase, MD, Fire Department and chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.