Response Guide for Sprinkler Systems
By Michael Lee
October is the month when we typically educate the public on fire safety as part of Fire Prevention Week. But it's also a good reminder of the need to educate our own personnel about one of the most impactful fire protection tools we have available — sprinkler systems.
Some of you reading this may well be shouting that other tools are more important. But I would argue that the invention of the fire sprinkler is up there with motorized apparatus among the inventions that have had the biggest impact on the fire service.
It began back in the 19th century, when various fire sprinkler concepts began to be designed. But it is Henry S. Parmalee, of New Haven, Connecticut, who is considered the inventor of the first practical automatic sprinkler head. Parmalee improved upon an existing Pratt patent and created a better sprinkler system. In 1874, he installed his fire sprinkler system into the piano factory that he owned.
Since that time, firefighters have had to incorporate the presence of fire sprinklers into their pre-plan processes. We have had to learn the multiple types of systems and how to utilize them in the structures that contain them. We have had to learn to support them and maximize their capabilities. With Fire Prevention Week on our agenda for the month, it seems a great time to review basic fire sprinkler support processes.
Initial fire sprinkler support can be broken into two categories — no fire showing and fire showing. When responding to a fire alarm in a structure with a known sprinkler system, pay attention to the dispatch information. Was this call initiated by:
- A fire alarm system (smoke detector); or
- A water flow alarm
While this will not confirm the presence of a fire, an alarm that announces the movement of water through the sprinkler system should grab your attention. As you continue your response, look for further information that may support the possibility of a fire in the structure you are responding to:
- On arrival, are the fire alarm system horns/strobes activated?
- Can you see smoke or fire on your initial 360 size-up?
- Has evacuation occurred for the interior occupants? If so, can they provide information to assist with creating your initial assessment and action plan?
Initial apparatus support of the Fire Department Connection (FDC) is generally recommended regardless of the ability to confirm the presence of a fire at this time.
Get your engineer to support the FDC for a couple of reasons:
- If there is an existing fire, you will need to support the system anyway — better to have support and not need it than to not have it and need it
- Practice the way you play — if you make it a practice to find and connect to an FDC any time you have a fire alarm, when you really need the skills your team will already be well practiced with all the systems your initial response district has.
Support to the system should be at least two 2-and-a-half-inch supply lines to the FDC. Newer generations of the FDC allow for a single 5-inch supply line. In either case, support the system with the NFPA recommended pump pressure of at least 150 psi unless your department SOPs or pre-plan for this specific structure dictate differently.
If your initial assessment leads to you believe that this is a non-fire response, you still have to perform a few actions. First, you must access the system to confirm that activation has occurred and that water is actually flowing.
It is possible that the system has done its job in extinguishing the fire and consequently there are no visible signs of the fire from the exterior. Dividing the team allows for a recon team to access the area of the fire sprinkler head activation and another team to access the room that contains the main control valve.
Your recon team should look for an activated sprinkler head that may be flowing water. Communication from your team in the main control valve room may help focus your efforts to a specific floor or zone. Once the offending sprinkler head is located, confirm no other fire-based problems are present and secure the water to the zone flowing water. Comments on returning the fire sprinkler system to service or assisting with salvage are listed at the end of the article.
If you feel this is a fire-based activation, the recon team should be assessing the environment as they move toward the area of the sprinkler head that is flowing. Look for "cold smoke."
Author Anthony Avillo defines cold smoke as a "process which occurs when the sprinkler head actually extinguishes the fire. In addition to the extinguishment, the cooling of the fire actually can cause the creation of carbon monoxide due to incomplete combustion." The cold smoke will tend to hug the floor, carrying the products of the fire with it, making visibility difficult. Wear an SCBA and consider the use of a thermal camera to assist with finding the source of the fire.
Once the origins of the fire are found, confirm that no fire extension exists. Recon the surrounding area to ensure there have not been multiple fire sets, and when you are comfortable that all fire is out have the other team shut down the zone valve that feeds the sprinkler head to that origin area.
Some departments may require initial or secondary teams to stretch a hand line to ensure extinguishment is accomplished as rapidly as possible. Secondary units arriving on scene can be assigned to stretch attack lines if the origin of the fire has not been found or if the size of the fire may overwhelm the abilities of the sprinkler system.
My first due units do not currently stretch an attack line on a sprinkler activation if fire is not confirmed, but as I outlined in a previous article, it is good training any time your crew can stretch a line. My primary concern is that the recon locates the source of the problem and ensures that if there is a fire, the system is working properly and providing the required volume of water to be working effectively.
Back in service
Once the problem that initiated the activation of the sprinkler heads has been identified and controlled, consider placing the system back in service while assisting with salvage. Some departments prevent their personnel from replacing sprinkler heads and returning the system to service because of legal concerns. While this point of view has merit to some, I personally feel that the time it takes to wait for a fire sprinkler technician to respond to replace a sprinkler head potentially places the remaining occupants in the structure at risk during that period.
In either situation, whether your crews return the system to service or on site maintenance/fire sprinkler technicians perform this task, it is recommended that a certified fire sprinkler repair company also sends a technician to ensure there was no damage to the system and to ensure it is fully operational. In any case, follow your department SOPs.
If the cause of the sprinkler activation was in fact a fire, ensure your investigators are notified and respond. Secure the sprinkler water flow and isolate the area until your investigators have completed their assessment.
You should also assist the owners with salvage and water removal when possible. Sprinkler systems in multi-family dwellings make significant messes and can cause water damage to multiple floors based on the source of the original water flow. A discussion with managers of apartments or townhomes before sprinkler activation can significantly reduce your workload and out-of-service times for your units. Have the managers contacted and contract a disaster restoration company that is able to remove water, assist with drying carpets and clean the occupants' personal items on multiple floors.
Fire sprinkler systems throughout the century have helped save numerous lives. They are a significant foundation in our ability to reduce fire damage and fatalities. Know where the fire sprinkler systems are in your district, know how to support them and know how to place them back in service. This should be part of your pre-plan process as well as required knowledge of all first due companies. Stay safe!
Avillo. Anthony. Fireground Strategies. (1st Edition) Chapter 10 – Commercial Occupancies and Strip Malls, Page 355. Penwell Publishing.
Bellis. Mary. Fire Sprinkler Systems. Downloaded from http://inventors.about.com/library/inventors/blfiresprinkler.htm at 12:06, October 12, 2009.
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