CHICAGO — Although fires in high-rise structures have received considerable media attention in the Chicago area, such fires aren't just limited to highrises — they occur in buildings of every size and shape, with lives frequently hanging in the balance, said Brian Conway, executive vice president of Great Lakes Plumbing & Heating Co. From a blaze starting in the dryer of a retirement home to flames roaring to life within the confines of an office complex, these buildings, and those who occupy them, need the protection offered by fire sprinklers, he said.
"A fire can happen anywhere, yet some people have an ‘it-can't-happentome' attitude about their own safety," Conway said in a prepared statement. "Sprinklers may mean an additional investment, and that figures into people's attitudes. But that expense is minimal, compared to the far greater cost of repairing a building devastated by fire. And when it comes to safety, you can't put a cost on a human life."
Increased public awareness regarding the importance of sprinklers has resulted since the Oct. 17, 2003, high-rise fire in the Cook County Administration Building in Chicago that resulted in the deaths of six people and injuries to several others(November 2003, pg. 1).
A sprinkler ordinance is before the Chicago City Council that would require sprinkler retrofits in commercial and residential buildings built before 1975. Current sprinkler ordinances in Chicago dictate that all high-rise buildings built since 1975 are required to have fire sprinkler systems. The Northern Illinois Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board estimates that about 800 commercial and residential high-rise buildings in Chicago are without fire sprinklers.
While fires in high-rises are a peril that must be addressed, high-rises aren't the only buildings where people gather.
"You've probably never read in the newspaper about incidents where a single sprinkler saved lives and property," Conway said. "When it comes to fires, the media only report on cases of extensive property damage or loss of life. If it weren't for sprinklers, you'd be seeing a lot more fire-related tragedies.
"Still, there are a lot more buildings out there that need protection - that's where we come in. We've installed sprinkler systems in schools, as well as community buildings and apartments with single-room occupancies, where people smoke and cook in their rooms. We've also installed sprinklers in seven of the enlisted quarters at Great Lakes Naval Base, with occupancies between 500 and 1,000 each. Even military personnel need protection, when it comes to fire."
Sprinkler systems are usually superior to traditional firefighting methods in that they can reach and extinguish the fire first, Conway said. Moreover, the amount of water released by sprinklers is much less than that released by fire hoses. According to the Scottsdale Report, a 15-year study of fire sprinkler effectiveness, a sprinkler uses an average of 341 gal. of water to control a fire. Firefighters use an average of 2,935 gal. Reduced water damage is a major source of savings when sprinklers have been installed.
The facts about water damage address the notion that all of a building's sprinklers go off simultaneously.
"The individual sprinklers are heatactivated, and when the heat of a blaze raises the temperature of a sprinkler to the activation level, usually 165F, water will be released directly above the source of the heat," Conway said. " Because they operate in the region of the fire's origin, they help to keep fires small by controlling or dousing them in their early stages."
According to the National Fire Sprinkler Association, the odds of accidental discharge of fire sprinklers due to mechanical defect have been found historically to be extremely low, on the order of one per year per 16 million sprinklers in use. NFSA added that automatic sprinkler systems and other system components are tested and listed by Underwriters Laboratories and Factory Mutual Research Corp. to make sure they are not prone to leakage.
The NFSA North Illinois Chapter cites numerous examples where successful activations of fire sprinklers in commercial and residential buildings helped to minimize fire damage and extinguish blazes in their early stages:
- In February 2000, the fire department of Northbrook, Ill., received an alarm at 8:52 p.m. and arrived at a large office complex at 8:56 p.m., and found that the fire had already been extinguished by the sprinkler system. Only two sprinkler heads had activated. The source of the fire was determined to be the careless use of smoking materials.
- In March 2001, a fire was contained to the closet area of a student room in a college residence hall in New London, N.H. According to Fire Chief Peter Stanley, the fire was controlled by the sprinkler system.
- In January 2003, a fire began in a dryer at a nursing home in Orland Park, Ill. A single fire sprinkler prevented the fire from spreading through the home, which is the residence for 249 seniors. Firefighters from Orland Fire Protection District were able to extinguish the remaining fire with a dry chemical extinguisher.
- In October 2003, fire broke out at Stroger Hospital of Cook County on the seventh floor of the medical and surgical unit. The blaze began in bedding materials and one report indicated that a patient smoking might have caused it. Sprinklersin the room contained the fire. No injuries were reported. Great Lakes installed the sprinklers in Stroger Hospital.
None of the buildings involved were high-rise structures, but all were facilities with large numbers of residents, employees or customers.
Worries about sprinklers in computer rooms are understandable, since electricity and water make a bad combination. Water-free options for fire control are available but should be accompanied by sprinkler backup.