Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Guest Blogger on Sprinklers

We have a guest Blogger Today Mr. Jack Mason CFI , Fire Marshal and Emergency Management Coordinator for Municipality of Penn Hills Pa.
Mr. Mason is a Certified Fire Investigator thru the IAAI- International Assoc. Arson Investigators. and a well known expert on fire related issues.
One of which he raises in today's blog.
Hopefully, everyone in Pennsylvania is aware that, as of January 1, 2011, any new single family dwelling built will be required to have a “residential sprinkler system” installed. This is a Code Requirement found in portions of the “Pennsylvania Uniform Construction Code”.
You may have heard various “pros” and “cons” regarding such systems, mostly dealing with the overall costs for installation. Within the “Code” community, there are other questions staring to arise. These include such things as:
- WILL there be “plans” submitted” for such installation?
- WHO is going to “review” the Plans submitted?
- WHO will do the installation?
- WHO is going to do the “final inspection of such installation?
- WILL the final installation meet the Code requirements?
- HOW will future changes made by the homeowner and/or Contractor (or others) affect the operation of the sprinkler system?
WHOA!! Wait a minute, what does that have to do us “Fire Investigators”? Well, I have been hearing of several scenarios in the aftermath of a “house fire” with such a “required” sprinkler system installation in place. Let me use one example of a “what if” scenario.
The homeowner is frying a pan of chicken thighs on the kitchen stove, and goes to the living room to watch part of the evening “news”. Suddenly, smoke comes from the kitchen, and they return to find a fire coming from the pan of chicken, and going up to the wooden cabinets above. Feeling they cannot control the fire, the homeowner and family flee the house and call 9-1-1. The FD arrives to find the kitchen “fully involved”, with fire entering the dining room. By the time the fire is extinguished, it had gone from the first floor, up the stairs, and to part of the bedroom areas. But wait! The Fire Chief wonders why the fire got “out of the kitchen” when there was a sprinkler system there also. Oh well, the Firefighters did their job, and now return to the Fire Station.
Now, it is time for the “Fire Investigator” (public and/or private) to “do their thing”.
Basically, your investigation reveals that the “area of origin” is the kitchen, specifically the “point of origin” being the kitchen stove and the pan thereon. You examine the remains of the pan, the conditions of the various “burners” and their controls, the half-empty bottle of “oil” used to cook the chicken, etc., and conclude the ignition scenario is one you have seen far too many times before. Now you may think (hopefully), “Hmmm, this house has one of those new ‘residential sprinkler systems’ in it, and a sprinkler head is centered in the kitchen ceiling. Why didn’t it fully extinguish the fire, or at least keep the fire from spreading to the rest of the house?”
Now, the questions begin, and further investigation is conducted.
- Did the sprinkler head “operate”?
- Was the “sprinkler head” the proper type?
- ?????
OK, you (or, a “Code” expert) determine that the “sprinkler head” was the proper type, and, it DID operate. Fine, but, why didn’t it control or stop the fire? Without touching on potential “spoliation” issues, we will state that further examination is now conducted. The following are just some of the issues that may arise from your further examination (and includes some comment).
#1- A “valve” for the sprinkler system is found in the “off” position. (Did the homeowner do this, or, was it never turned “on” after the final inspection? If “never turned on”, is the “Installer”, and/or the “local Code Inspector” at fault ? Wait, did the Code allow for such a valve in the first place?)
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#2- Everything “looks OK”, but you wonder if the ½” copper waterline could have supplied enough volume and pressure to the kitchen sprinkler head? (Code issues. Was it “sized” properly, and where are the “calculations” for such an installation? Did an Architect submit drawings/calculations for the system? If so, did the Installer follow such drawings for their installation? If no drawings were prepared, what “Codes” did the Installer follow for such installation?)
#3- Gee, everything so far, once again, “looks OK”. Now, you examine the sprinkler head itself. Was it the proper “head” for this type of “residential” installation, or, do you find it is a “commercial” head, with a higher temperature rating than what is called for under the “residential” installation Code? (Was the “wrong” head called for in the specs, or did the Installer putting in the wrong “head”.)
#4- Well, you have found all the valves in the proper position, and the “specs” for the overall system all match “Code” requirements, and the “sprinkler head” in the kitchen is the right size, now what? Well, you notice that, prior to the fire, there had been a large ornamental kitchen ceiling “light and fan” unit in the center of the kitchen ceiling. The “sprinkler head” is on the side of this unit “away” from the stove, and only 2” from the unit body. The homeowner tells you that this was there when they moved in. Hmm, there is the potential for the “sprinkler head” not being able to provide the proper amount of water immediately to the fire area (kitchen stove top), due to being partially “blocked” by the unit body. (Did the Electrician install the fan after the sprinkler head was in place, or, did the Sprinkler Installer install the sprinkler head after the “light and fan” unit was in place? The Sprinkler Installer should have been aware of the “clearance” issues (Code requirements), and/or the Code Inspector should have been aware of similar issues upon the final inspection.) However, what if the homeowner installed this unit, not realizing it could block the sprinkler head’s effectiveness?
#5- In the “when all else fails” situation, you may decide to check the water supply at the street (a Fire Hydrant flow test). Do the findings match the original “flow test” results? If there is a “major” deviation i.e., a “lower” supply, you must ask “WHY”? Was there an original flow test actually done? On the day of the fire, did the Water Authority have any “problems” in the area, such a broken main water line, which could have affected water flow at the time of the fire? Did the Water Authority, six months after the house was completed, change part of their in-ground System, so that a lesser amount of water was available when the fire occurred? (The supply would still meet minimum requirements for area “general fire and domestic service” water, but, if the calculations for the house was at the bare minimum [maybe to keep installation costs down] , then the current Public street service water would NOT be enough to comply with Code requirements “inside” the house [did the Sprinkler Designer” provide any “percentage increase” to address just such an issue?] )
My “intent” here is NOT to “take a side” on the Code issues, although as a Firefighter, I can see the potential for life and property savings such Systems can provide (including the lives of Firefighters), regardless of the “costs”.
And, it is NOT my “intent” to take issue with any sprinkler system Architect, Designer, Installer, Trades-person, and/or Code Official/Inspector regarding their qualifications and/or job performance.
Further, it is NOT my “intent” to put together a “blueprint for potential SUBROGATION” for the Fire Investigator of such scenarios, although I would hope that ANY Fire Investigator would at least be aware of such potentials.
Rather, due to the MANY comments and questions that I have heard, as a “Firefighter, Fire Investigator, and/or Code Official”, it IS my “intent” to show, just like the old Social comment “It takes a Village to raise a Child”, that it takes a combined effort to insure that, when such Systems are installed, they are installed correctly, and in full Code compliance, and all factors affecting the performance of such Systems continue to be “maintained”, so that, when called upon, they can perform correctly and extinguish and/or control the fire.
Like a chain made up of many “links”, it only takes one “weak link” to cause the entire chain to fail, and the load it carries. When that happens, the door for the Fire Investigator, and maybe to potential SUBROGATION, is opened, and the whole “Village” can be affected.

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