BY ROBERT P. MADER
Of CONTRACTOR’s staff
WEST WARWICK, R.I. — Fire sprinkler industry officials are reluctant to take advantage of tragedy such as the Feb. 20 fire at The Station nightclub here to promote sprinklers. They are, however, reminding people that the 97 dead would still be alive if the building had been sprinklered.
“We view the promotion of sprinklers as life-saving devices as an everyday issue and we don’t want to capitalize on a tragedy to make a point,” said Steve Muncy, president of the American Fire Sprinkler Association. “Our position has not changed. Fire sprinklers save lives and property, and we need to take as strong as possible a position within the codes to make sure that people are adequately protected.”
The National Fire Sprinkler Association Web site noted: “ ‘If there were sprinklers in this building, we wouldn’t be here right now.’ Those were the chilling comments of fire chiefs at the scene of a one-story nightclub in West Warwick, R.I., that was engulfed in flames within three minutes after a rock band’s on-stage pyrotechnics display spread to adjacent sound-deadening foam, leading to at least 96 deaths and 180 injuries.”
In most occupancies fire sprinklers are designed to control a fire, but in reality they almost always put the fire out, Muncy noted.
“We don’t want to appear that we’re trying to benefit the industry by exploiting a tragedy,” he said. “We would rather have the fire marshals out there saying it.”
Nevertheless, those in the industry are confident that sprinklers would have stopped the nightclub fire because they have tested the proposition.
Rich Skinner, the northeast regional manager for NFSA and a former firefighter, set up a demonstration with the help of the Tyco Research & Development Laboratory in Cranston, R.I. Researchers constructed a mock-up of the nightclub inside the lab.
Because they could only guess what kind of soundproofing foam had been used on the stage, Skinner and the Tyco researchers used 312-in. foam because it would cause a fire that may have been worse than the nightclub fire. They glued the foam to 14-in. CDX plywood. A wick dipped in heptane and lit by a torch ignited the foam.
During the unsprinklered fire, the foam gave off black sooty smoke. The room was engulfed in 55 seconds. Skinner said they “bailed out” of the room at 50 seconds and lab personnel in fireproof suits used 134-in. hose lines to put out the fire. Sensors at the ceiling said the temperature had reached 1,200°F.
For the sprinklered test, researchers set up an NFPA 13 sprinkler system in the space. After the fire was ignited, the ceiling temperature rose to 200°F, a single pendent activated after 22 seconds and completely extinguished the fire. Only a light haze filled the room, Skinner said, so occupants could have found their way to exit doors.
Skinner said he videotaped the experiment, and he’s supplied the videotape to the state fire marshal’s office; the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; and he loaded it onto TV Access, a satellite uplink, so that TV stations can use it. Skinner said that at least one CBS station had used the footage.
Skinner said that he’s working with Rhode Island legislators to change the building code to include a retrofit provision for all nightclubs that house 100 persons or more or are 5,000 sq. ft. or more. The retrofits would be funded with an investment tax credit or low-interest loan to the building owner and have a five- to 10-year retrofit window.
While investigators don’t know exactly what kind of soundproofing foam was used, Roland Huggins, vice president/research and development for AFSA, said he suspects the foam was a building code violation. Building officials could not be reached for comment.