Fire Code Tools Can Lead to More Fire Sprinkler Protection

Fire Code Tools Can Lead to More Fire Sprinkler Protection

By Jon Nisja – Data & Fire Protection Specialist, NFSA

Before coming to work for the National Fire Sprinkler Association (NFSA), I served 32 years as a supervisor in the state fire marshal’s office in my home state. In 1990, I was hired to oversee a new school fire inspection program. The state’s legislature had become concerned about the condition of the aging school buildings; a high percentage of school districts in the state at the time had one or more buildings that were 90 or more years old. In addition, every two years prior, the state had been experiencing a fire that had heavily damaged or destroyed a school.

Before embarking on the actual inspections, staff researched the history of significant school fires, analyzed the school fire incident data, reviewed the common fire code violations in school buildings, and examined how the various national codes addressed these violations. The focus at the time was on life safety: getting students, staff, and visitors safely out of the building.

The state fire marshal had a close working relationship with the state’s department of education. Early in the program’s life, I was invited to attend a meeting with the department of education and the facility directors for the state’s three largest school districts. One of the districts had been regularly inspected by their local fire department and was not overly concerned about fire inspections moving forward. The second district had experienced some state inspections in the past and, although apprehensive about the impact of fire inspections, pretty much accepted that there would be issues for them to address.

The third district had basically never been inspected; the local fire department had little interest in conducting inspections due to past political issues and disputes. This district recognized that there would be some serious issues uncovered during the inspections and said, “We will make any of the corrections that we need to, but we will not sprinkler our existing buildings.” That was a bit unsettling, but it was clear that the gauntlet had been laid down and sprinkler mandates would not work.

Back in 1990 it was fairly rare to find a school that had fire sprinkler protection. If it had fire sprinklers, it was probably fairly new and larger in size; enough so that the building code required it at the time of construction. Although data on sprinkler protection wasn’t tracked in the early days of the program, it is estimated that only 5-10 percent of the state’s 1,500 school buildings had fire sprinklers.

The fire inspections took place across the state, and they revealed a number of fire and life safety deficiencies. Almost half of the buildings did not have fire-rated egress corridors for occupants to use and safely get out of the building (Photo 1 shows a school corridor without fire-rated walls or doors).

Half of the buildings did not have fire-rated construction around hazardous areas – like shops, laboratories, boiler rooms, and similar spaces. Unprotected vertical openings having three or more stories open to each other were found in about 25 percent of the buildings (see photo 2). Several dozen schools had magnetically locked exit doors.

The fire and life safety codes all recognized these issues as violations or deficiencies and allowed fire sprinklers as an option to correct them. So, the fire inspection order for many schools read something like: “Fire-rate egress corridors – or provide sprinkler protection”, “Fire-separate hazardous areas – or provide sprinkler protection”, “Construct vertical opening separations – or provide sprinkler protection”, and “Discontinue locking devices – or provide sprinkler protection”. Schools soon realized that fire sprinkler installation was cheaper and less disruptive than the other options.

Fast forward to more contemporary times. The vast majority of schools in the state (somewhere around 75 percent) now have fire sprinkler protection. Going back to 1997 (26 years), there has only been one fire that destroyed a school building (rather than one every two years in the 1980s). That fire was from a lightning strike in 2014; it is difficult for fire sprinklers to protect against lightning strikes on the roof of a building. There are 2-3 sprinkler-controlled fires each year in the state. The total fire loss in these sprinkler-controlled fires was $1.3 Million while the property’s value was $395 Million (the fire loss is less than 0.5 percent of value).

Oh, and remember the school district that wasn’t willing to install fire sprinklers? All of their buildings are now protected with fire sprinklers, and they even employ two full-time sprinkler fitters to maintain the systems and do minor alterations.

The model fire and life safety codes provide lots of options to get buildings protected with fire sprinklers and not just for new buildings but for existing buildings as well. Fire code officials can use these tools to get buildings sprinkler-protected. Using the tools in the fire code have allowed fire code officials and school districts to protect these valuable assets and provided them with cost-effective options. Most property owners prefer having options available to them rather than mandates.