BY MARK ARSENAULT
Journal State House Bureau
PROVIDENCE -- Fire protection engineer Richard M. Patton, a longtime pain in the side of the fire services establishment, has found a new audience in Rhode Island for his approach to low-cost "life-safety" sprinklers.
Patton's letters to local officials, penned from his home in California, attack the establishment and promise safety at a fraction of the cost of traditional sprinkler systems -- those approved by the National Fire Protection Association.
The NFPA has heard it all before.
"Patton's been the antiestablishment guy for 30 years," said Arthur E. Cote, NFPA executive vice president and chief engineer. "Whatever the establishment thinks is appropriate, he disagrees with it."
Local officials who have talked to Patton call him a "character," and praise his decades of dedication to fire safety.
"He's a zealot, I give him that," Cote said.
That's about all he gives him.
"I don't have much good to say about Dick Patton," said Cote, who has know Patton for three decades. "And he's got nothing good to say about any of the major fire service establishments."
Journal photo / Mary Murphy
PHYSICAL CLOSURE: With tributes to the victims of the Feb. 20 fire at The Station nightclub standing at the site, an excavator from Coventry Building & Wrecking Co. spreads fill dirt on the property yesterday.
Patton accuses the NFPA of lies, cover-ups, conspiracies, and worse, to protect fire service jobs instead of the public. "I say that compared to the NFPA," Patton writes, "Ted Bundy was a Boy Scout."
Patton's purpose at age 77 "is to write a lot of caustic letters," he said in an interview. "I have been attempting to embarrass the fire services establishment into doing the right thing."
Over the decades, Patton has taken on just about every wing of that establishment. In Rhode Island, a state reeling from the Feb. 20 fire at The Station nightclub that killed 100 people, Patton is pushing an alternative sprinkler system, which he says would cost half or a quarter of traditional setups.
"For more than 50 years there have been terrible fire disasters," Patton wrote to Governor Carcieri. "After each one there have been good intentions relative [to] installing sprinkler systems."
That's the case in Rhode Island; a bill to require sprinklers at more places of assembly is pending in the House, and a 17-member legislative commission is reviewing the state's fire code for ways to make the state safer.
The problem, Patton argues, is always cost.
Make sprinklers inexpensive and businesses would embrace them; make the sprinkler requirement costly and businesses will embrace their lawyers, Patton said.
"When a small business looks into the cost of installing them, they can be looking at $100,000," he said. "So they get their lawyers to fight it and water down the requirements.
"It's always the same result -- a place burns and people are killed because they don't have sprinklers. And [the fight over sprinklers] goes on for a few years and then it goes away."
Patton, who has a degree in fire protection engineering from Illinois Institute of Technology, says sprinklers can "virtually eliminate fire death." He advocates a "low-cost" system that can be fed from existing domestic water lines, requiring a fraction of the water that the NFPA calls for in its standards for commercial sprinklers.
"The NFPA code is just an open door for people who want to sell their products," Patton said. Experiments have shown that low-water sprinklers -- discharging no more than would a garden hose -- are still effective in quashing fire, he said.
"What do these experiments tell us?" he writes. "They tell us if a home has enough water [for] a shower, it has enough water to extinguish the worst-case scenario fire that can develop in a single room."
The idea has intrigued some Rhode Island officials, who say they are trying to improve fire safety without putting anyone out of business.
"I think his arguments are very good," said state Rep. Joseph Trillo, R-Warwick, a member of the special legislative commission studying fire safety. "If, as he says, 95 percent of the fires can be put out with less than two sprinkler heads, then why are we looking only at the old standards?"
Trillo said he spoke to Patton by telephone for about two hours. He favors bringing Patton to Rhode Island to testify before the fire safety panel.
The Fire Safety Code Board of Appeal & Review has recommended that the commission investigate alternative sprinkler systems in cases where sprinklers would be retrofitted into existing buildings, said Tom Coffey, the board's director and its representative on the special commission.
"If you can make a system cost-effective, you have increased the potential that the system will be installed," Coffey said. "If it's more expensive, there's a lot more opposition."
The fire board is in the process of reviewing the engineering Patton recommends, Coffey said.
One NFPA residential standard does allow a sprinkler system to be tied into the domestic water line, Cote said. But never for sprinklers in a commercial structure, he said. "The experts have studied this and they just don't think that is wise."
Patton contends that a system fed by as little as 5 to 10 gallons of water per minute can adequately suppress an early fire.
Those flow rates are "absurdly low," Cote said. "If you don't put enough water on a fire to overcome the heat output, you don't put it out. Try throwing a glass of water on a bonfire."
Sprinklers are only as good as their water supply, Cote said. "If you install a sprinkler system with insufficient water, all you have created is a false sense of security. The idea that sprinkler standards from NFPA are grossly over-designed is simply not so."
Patton thinks Rhode Island officials should bring him to Providence, hear him out and put him to work. "I'll help them produce a code to install more sprinklers at about 25 percent of the cost," he said. "I've been fighting this fight for 50 years. There are ways to virtually eliminate fire death, and God -- there are people who don't want them."
That's about what Cote would expect him to say. "Typical Dick Patton," he said.
Read more about fire safety and regulations from Richard Patton's point of view at his Web site:
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05-07-2003, 05:09 PM #1
- Join Date
- Apr 2000
Engineer Says Sprinklers Can Be Cheaper
05-07-2003, 05:47 PM #2
Seems to me all that would be needed would be some experiments conducted by an indpendant panel to solve this issue. Cost is always an issue, and if you can reduce the cost by that much and yet provide the protection needed, then what would be wrong about that.
It sounds to me that the officals are just unwilling to listen to this guy no matter what he has to say.
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