Ask any fire marshal, or most other
fire service professionals, what's the surest way to prevent fire deaths
and injuries, and limit property damage, and you'll most likely hear
"automatic fire sprinklers," particularly in residential occupancies.
But ask them what they're willing to give up for them, and the response
will vary widely.
In an effort to increase fire sprinkler
protection in buildings and homes, fire service officials have commonly
offered incentives, to both property owners and policymakers, hoping to
convince them to add systems voluntarily or make installation mandatory
via local ordinance. "Trade-offs" commonly include decreased fireflow
and fire main sizes, increased fire hydrant spacing, longer and narrower
emergency access roadways (more time and fewer emergency response
vehicles probable), and limited/ surgical decreases in fire-resistant
construction. But where should the line be drawn? How much is too much?
The question of balance between passive
and active fire protection is an old one and appears to be supported
with more personal experience and opinion than science. Many in the fire
service have a sense of satisfaction with the movement toward more fire
sprinkler protection in buildings and those taking advantage of the
increased design flexibility find the cost palatable. Yet when faced
with significant change and choice for the first time, it is often
realized that there may be more to the safety equation than initially
recognized. The process involved in reaching a determination is likely
similar to the one used when evaluating performance-based designs maybe
newer for some than others, but no less daunting.
In California, the development process for the state version of the International Building Code and International Fire Code is
underway. The increased size of buildings protected by fire sprinklers,
in height and area, as well as the decrease in fire resistance of
several building components, is several times that permitted under the
Uniform Codes. This has forced building and fire code officials, along
with other stakeholders, to take a closer look, which has proven more
difficult than expected.
As of yet, there is no consensus of opinion, and
there are limited data upon which to draw. There appear to be more
unanswered questions than facts:
Which code had it right? The three model
codes had different base values and approaches for determining building
size, but none can clearly and objectively tout value beyond historical
relevance. Even regional fire loss data are lacking scientific value.
The new codes combine regional approaches, resulting in base values and
formulas that allow larger buildings than constructed anywhere in the
What is the true reliability of automatic fire sprinkler systems?
The data are limited and questionable. Much of it relies on surveys and
incident data completed by fire departments (often incomplete and
inaccurate, if even returned). A recent paper by William Koffel (Jan.
2006) attempts to reconcile operational and performance reliability, and
concludes that the overall reliability is 89 percent. How should that
information be used? Local experience related to enforcement of
maintenance requirements, percentage of system "downtime" (for TI work,
maintenance, etc.), arson rates (e.g., 25 percent of determined fires in
Orange County, California, compared to 10 percent nationally),
mechanical failure, and disruption in water supply all play still
What about areas of higher seismic activity? Should there
be an adjustment in the height and area formulas in regions where
earthquakes are a more probable occurrence, or does the structural and
system seismic design adequately account for this? What scenarios and
factors are reasonable to consider? Supply disruption with fire?
How should the existing fire protection infrastructure be
considered? Should a region's municipal water supply or fire department
resources, equipment, and/or capabilities/tactics play a role in the
There's even been debate about the
purpose of the building code is it life safety only or is property
protection an equal goal? And, as with performance-based design, how
does one determine the (unstated) fire protection goal? The California
State Fire Marshal delivered the charge that California will retain an
equivalent level of fire and life safety to that which is enjoyed today,
when evaluated from an holistic perspective. Determining acceptable
loss is a daunting task and one that must consider the variety of
factors that contribute to community safety and prosperity.
Lacking the data and science needed to
understand the ramifications of decisions, one is left to opinion and
conjecture in identifying the correct balance. Is redundancy a waste of
money or a prudent safety feature? Can the U.S., with one of the highest
per capita fire rates of any industrialized nation, afford to gamble?
It is the author's hope that it doesn't take the next few years to find
Laura Blaul is with the Orange County (CA) Fire Authority.