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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.