It's Time To Get Serious About Sprinkler Retrofits

For the second time in the last eight months, CONTRACTOR magazine has published a front-page story about a tragedy occurring in an older, unsprinklered building. The two buildings and the circumstances surrounding the fires were not similar in most respects. In February, the setting was a nightclub in West Warwick, R.I., where a rock bands careless use of pyrotechnics left almost 100 people dead.

For the second time in the last eight months, CONTRACTOR magazine has published a front-page story about a tragedy occurring in an older, unsprinklered building.

The two buildings and the circumstances surrounding the fires were not similar in most respects. In February, the setting was a nightclub in West Warwick, R.I., where a rock band’s careless use of pyrotechnics left almost 100 people dead.

This month, we report on a fire that broke out in October in a county administration building in Chicago where six people died from smoke inhalation. The cause of the second fire is still being investigated, but it is believed to have been started by an electrical malfunction in a light fixture in a supply room.

While the evacuation procedures of both buildings were questioned in the wake of the fires, the bigger common denominator was the absence of fire sprinklers. Predictably, the aftermath of both fires included calls by politicians to enact legislation to mandate the retrofitting of fire sprinklers in older structures.

How many of these tragedies will we have to report before building owners wake up to the need for sprinkler retrofits? How long before the legislation promised by the politicians actually becomes reality?

One fire safety expert says not only would fire sprinklers have saved the lives of the six county workers in Chicago, the sprinklers would have made evacuation of the building a non-issue. Sprinklers would have rendered insignificant the smoke spreading through the building. The locked stairwell doors that trapped the workers instead would have been only an inconvenience.

Similarly, sprinklers could have saved the 99 lives lost in Rhode Island as well as prevented the injuries to hundreds of burn victims.

Indeed, a spokesman for the National Fire Protection Association says that not one fatality has occurred in a fully sprinklered building since that organization began to record fire statistics in 1920.

In the past, contractor associations have been reluctant to appear as though they were trying to capitalize on tragedy by promoting sprinklers in the days right after a fire. In Rhode Island, members of the American Fire Sprinkler Association and National Fire Sprinkler Association allowed municipal fire marshals and fire chiefs to take the lead in advocating the value of sprinklers.

In Chicago, however, NFSA and other fire safety groups immediately used the fire to bring home the message that fire sprinklers save lives. They have been much more pointed in their comments on the need for sprinklers and the lack of action by local politicians. We believe that contractors are correct in taking the lead on this issue.

While contractors always have to be concerned about the public’s perception of them, it’s time that they step to the front. Contractors must lobby politicians to enact meaningful legislation to mandate sprinkler retrofits and work with owners to find ways to protect the occupants of their buildings.

You can’t put a price on human life, as some people like to say, but the fact is that cost remains the primary objection to sprinklers from those opposed to retrofitting older buildings. Installing sprinklers in existing structures is expensive as are the pumps and water lines that these projects frequently entail.

To help the cause of saving lives, contractors must work with building owners and governmental bodies to make sprinkler installations as cost-effective as possible. This should not be an insurmountable problem. Despite the expense and other objections to the retrofits, responsible building owners have stepped up to the plate and occupants of their buildings feel safer as a result.

The value of fire sprinklers is well documented by now. The purpose of sprinklers is to save lives, not to enrich contractors and others in the fire protection industry.

Although contractors may benefit as a result of retrofits, their outspoken advocacy will serve a greater cause. Tragedies such as the ones in Rhode Island and Chicago don’t have to happen. Sprinklers can prevent them.