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Chicago Sun-Times Article 7/03


How Safe Would You be in an Office Fire?

By Dr. W. Gene Corley, Senior Vice President, Construction Technology Laboratories, Skokie, IL; Team Leader, World Trade Center Building Performance Study

If you were building a home that had an electric security system, wouldn't you still want to know that the front door is secure? Of course you would.

Alarm systems can increase security, but you wouldn't view them as a substitute for more basic and reliable protective measures such as locked doors. Yet, in the area of fire safety, over-reliance on sprinklers could have deadly consequences.

Indeed, Americans have reason to be concerned about the state of fire safety in buildings in which they and their families work, live, shop, learn and play. Why? Because changes in building codes-the documents that establish and monitor the fire safety of all public and private buildings-have accepted the principle that sprinklers virtually never fail and, therefore, require a minimum of fire-resistant construction.

Virtually everyone agrees that sprinklers save lives and property, and, therefore, should be mandatory in certain types of buildings.

Even if one accepts the argument that sprinklers virtually never fail, there is still cause for concern since the inspection and maintenance of sprinklers is seldom mandatory. Even when inspections turn up deficiencies, few are actually corrected. For example, San Francisco recently recorded more than 2,200 fire safety violations in one year, including sprinkler infractions, yet only 14 percent were ever corrected. Another yardstick of our vulnerability to sprinkler failure is the recent product recall record of sprinklers. During a three-year period beginning in 1999, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission sought to recall some 67 sprinkler head models, representing more than 37 million sprinkler heads manufactured between 1961 and 2001. While most new sprinklers have electronic monitors to confirm that the system is working, they don't detect whether the sprinkler heads are faulty, or if they are so clogged with corrosion that water cannot get through.

In recent years, the three national model building codes have allowed the use of more sprinklers while reducing requirements for fireproofing, fire-resistant doors, walls and ceilings, and other dependable, time-proven measures that slow the progression of flames and protect steel beams and columns from buckling in a fire. At the same time, the new International Building Code and the NFPA 5000 are allowing taller and wider buildings, with more open, flexible space and fewer fire-rated separation walls to slow the progression of a fire. Moreover, the growing reliance on sprinkler protection has prompted the IBC and the NFPA 5000 to reduce or eliminate fire ratings for some interior partitions.

While many code officials view fire barriers as a costly excess, firefighters and fire damage investigators see it as a potential life saver.

In essence, the more fireproofing and other fire retardants that are designed into a structure, the less likely it is that a burning building will collapse and trap, injure, or kill its occupants. The need for adequate built-in protection becomes all the more critical when the sprinklers fail to function.

A case-in-point is the World Trade Center disaster. While truly an extraordinary event, additional fireproofing of the steel columns might have allowed occupants and firefighters more time to escape the inferno before the towers collapsed.

In a less spectacular tragedy, clogged pipes-caused by corrosion from bacteria in the water supply-resulted in a sprinkler failure at a nursing home that killed an 80?year?old woman and injured her sister. The system's pipes were so clogged that the full force of water couldn't reach the sprinkler heads. Had more fire protection been incorporated in the home, the fire might have been contained long enough to allow firefighters to rescue the women unharmed. Such events are becoming all too common.

What proponents of so-called sprinkler trade-offs fail to recognize is that the pursuit of life safety is not an "either-or" proposition. Just as doors and locks are essential to provide a safer home environment, every building in the state of Louisiana should have both sprinklers and fire-resistant construction for the safety of all its residents.