In light of the Charleston, S.C. tragedy that cost nine firefighters their lives, firefighters everywhere are examining the safety of the buildings that they are entrusted to protect. By all accounts, the firefighters who gave their lives did nothing wrong. They did everything they were trained to do.
Buildings that contain a lot of furniture are very vulnerable because of the materials involved with the manufacturing of the furniture. Wood, lacquer, polyurethane foam and other combustible materials can ignite and flashover (a phenomenon that occurs when all the materials in a room reach their ignition temperature and burst into flames. This heating of the materials is caused by super hot gases throughout the building.) at relatively low temperatures. For firefighters, this can be deadly. There is still speculation whether the firefighters were victims of a flashover or the collapse of the roof.
The fire is under investigation and we might not ever know what happened in that warehouse, however there is one thing we do know: if that store had fire protection sprinklers installed, the fire would have never gotten to point that it did. It is a proven fact that sprinkler systems save lives and property.
Sprinkler systems are a valuable fire protection tool, not only in businesses, but in homes as well. Unfortunately there are many misconceptions about residential fire protection systems. Many people are concerned that if a fire occurs in their home it will set off the entire sprinkler systems and damage their home. This is simply not true. Sprinkler heads are designed to be activated by heat, thus only activating the sprinkler head over the origin of the fire. The average head produces about 25 gallons per minute of water, the average fire hose, 250 GPM. The sprinkler system will put out the fire almost immediately. By the time the fire department responds to a call (providing of course they are notified. Many times fires burn unnoticed until smoke and/or flames are visible from the outside and a neighbor calls 911) the damage by the fire and /or smoke is much more extensive than if the fire had been extinguished immediately.
The cost is another big misconception about residential sprinkler systems. The simplicity of the design and relatively inexpensive material used in residential sprinkler systems makes them affordable. The average cost of a residential sprinkler system ranges from $1.50-$2.50 a square foot. Upgrades in a new home will sometimes cost you more than that!
Some interesting facts about structure fires:
Two-thirds of civilian fire deaths resulted from structure fires in one-and-two family dwellings
Kitchens are the leading area of origin for home structure fires
Half of the civilian fire fatalities were people who were outside the room where the fire originated, killed by fires that spread beyond the room of origin.
Forty percent of reported home structure fires occurred in properties with working smoke detectors.
In the year 1999, according to a study by Michael J. Karter, Jr, Fire Loss in the United States, 3,570 deaths occurred due to fire. 2,895 were home deaths.
As of 2000, there is no record of a fire killing 2 or more people in a sprinkled building.
Of course sprinkler systems don’t make a building "fire-proof," but they significantly reduce damage to property and reduce fatalities. Can anyone really put a price on that?
Our thoughts and prayers go out to firefighters and their families in Charleston.
Barto is Richmond Hill Fire Department's fire inspector and a contributing columnist.