Sprinklers Reduce Probability and Severity of Fire
BRENDAN MACGRATH | FM Global

At around 11:00 p.m. on a Saturday night in February 2005, a small fire started in a room on the 21st story of the Torre Windsor high-rise office building in downtown Madrid, Spain. Despite the efforts of the permanent security staff and the professional fire brigade – which used 1.6 million gallons (six million liters) of water to prevent the blaze from spreading to adjacent neighboring properties – the 32-story, 100-meter-high building became engulfed in flames; by morning, it had partially collapsed.

Fearing further collapse, the city set up a 547-yard (500-meter) exclusion zone around the building, forcing a shuttering of nearby businesses that affected some 30,000 workers. At the same time, many roads and railways feeding this important business district were shutdown, snarling traffic for commuters. And, because of the building’s central location, its demolition was more a gradual dismantling – a process that led to significant disruption in the area for the next six months.

The estimated cost of the fire, including insured damages to third parties, was expected to exceed U.S. $472 million (€300 million). More difficult to measure is the damage this highly publicized catastrophe had on Madrid’s image as the business capital of Spain’s thriving economy, and as an important tourist destination – especially at a time when it was considered a front-running contender to host the 2012 Olympics.

Also in Madrid, a few years earlier, on New Year’s Day 2002, a short circuit from an operating portable electrical heater started a fire in a seven-story office building. Unlike the Torre Windsor, however, this facility was fitted with a sprinkler system. Three sprinkler heads operated, successfully controlling and ultimately extinguishing the fire by the time the public fire brigade, notified by the water flow alarm, arrived. An esti­mated 6,900 gallons (26,000 liters) of sprinkler water was applied – 230 times less than that consumed by hose streams during the Torre Windsor office fire. The estimated total loss cost was just U.S. $278,000 (€175,000). Perhaps most important, the building’s staff returned to work the following day, and there was no significant interruption to those in the immediate community.

The Societal Impact of Fire In 2007, there were countless examples of cata­strophic fire in Europe and around the globe, in facilities housing a wide variety of activities (and their associated fire hazards). In Denmark, for example, two separate fires – one in April, one in July – destroyed two large pork-product processing facilities. During the time it took for demolition, rebuilding and repairs to be completed, a total of more than 1,300 employees were forced to look elsewhere for work – not to mention the impact to the staffs of those companies supplying raw materials and services to the affected facilities – creating a sense of uncertainty that can put a strain on a local economy beyond the obvious unemployment-benefit costs.

In addition, the interim and sometimes permanent closure of a facility will often cause a company to relocate jobs to another country with lower costs. Such was the fate of 200 jobs following a major fire at an electrical manufactur­ing plant in the U.K. in 2001: the plant closed and the operations were transferred to a facility in Greece. Indeed, fire affects the economy not just at the local level, but at the national level as well.

Also in 2007, in Treviso, Italy, a domestic appliance manufacturing facility with a staff of 800 suffered a catastrophic fire. With thick black smoke emanating from the plant, nearby schools were evacuated and closed, while businesses and residences in the surrounding urban area were ordered to keep their windows closed. The toll on the community was so great that the manufac­turing company involved was formally questioned on whether it took the necessary measures to prevent this event and its consequences.

The Societal Impact of Sprinklers Each of the above catastrophes has one thing in common – the buildings involved were not fitted with an auto-matic fire sprinkler system. Had an adequately designed, installed and maintained system been provided, the outcome and overall impact would almost certainly have been different.

Contrast the above examples of uncon­trolled fire with what happened in France one Friday in August 2007. Following an argument with a few colleagues, a disgrun­tled employee at a 9,568 square yard (8,000m2) spare-parts warehouse set fire to some of the facility’s cartoned goods, which were in high-rack storage. Four sprinkler heads positioned above the fire operated promptly, limiting damage to one bay of the rack. All employees safely evacuated the building, and the fire brigade, upon its arrival, quickly extinguished what was essentially the size of an incipient fire. There was no reported impact to the environ­ment, and operations at the facility resumed as usual the following Monday.

The Full Cost of Fire While the property insurance costs of major fire events are readily quantifiable, their total economic cost and broader impact on society – on the community, on the environment, on the safety of building occupants and emergency services – are not. Indeed, the property and business interruption loss costs represent only the tip of the iceberg; much of the total impact and cost of fire to society remain effectively hidden from view.

Observed from this perspective, the sprinkler is a device for the protection not only of properties and their assets, but also of people, their livelihoods, the environ­ment, the local community, the economy – of sustainability in general. Given both the impact of fire on today’s society – estimated by several studies at the macro-economic level to be between one and two percent of a country’s gross domestic product (GDP) – and the potential benefits of sprinklers, it is appropriate that legislation should regulate for positive change in this area.

When it comes to the greater societal benefits of automatic sprinkler protection, consider the following:

  • Sprinklers and society. Building codes exist to protect society and third parties – namely, employees, responding fire services, and neighboring properties – from the risk posed by activity carried out at a particular property. But shouldn’t codes also require the protection of the facility itself, considering all the value derived from that facility – value that contributes to society? If a major fire puts a production line out of operation for several months, what happens to the jobs of the people working there? What about the jobs of all the suppliers? The impact goes far beyond the fence line. Automatic sprinkler systems can reduce, even eliminate, the consequences a fire can have on society as a whole.
  • Sprinklers and the environment. Fighting a large, uncontrolled fire with hose streams can require much more water than controlling a fire with sprinklers. Plus, there are the products of combustion – contaminants, harmful gases. In a fire, the embedded carbon in a building’s construction material and goods is liberated. Carbon is then consumed in treating the debris and in manufacturing replacement material. So, a fire in an unsprinklered facility might generate three to four times the carbon dioxide of a facility with sprinklers.
  • Sprinklers and sustainability. When we hear about the ‘sustainable design’ of a building, we tend to think of the environment. But it’s not just a “green” issue. A building provides important contributions to the local and macro economies throughout its life cycle. What’s more, sustainability is a key reputation driver – for both investor and authority stakeholders. For regulators, the question is how to protect the important contributions a facility makes to a region’s or country’s reputation. Sprinklers are a big part of the solution.
  • Sprinklers and globalization. As emerging economies like those in Asia see increased development due to foreign investment, they’re adapting more rapidly to newer protection philosophies and techniques. The more nascent or dynamic the market, we’ve seen that, in general, the quicker it is to embrace the concept and benefits of sprinkler protection via regulations. The sprinkler’s proven reliability allows all stakeholders to feel confident that a facility is better protected than one relying solely on other, more passive methods of fire prevention.
  • Sprinklers and supply chain. A facility in an emerging economy is no longer just another supplier turning out nuts and bolts; it’s now a critical link in the chain of an enterprise’s global production line. Countries with emerging economies, then, should help companies maintain the resilience of their supply chain – by having codes that mandate well-protected facilities. If a company outsources production to a facility in southeast Asia, and a big fire occurs, other companies may think twice about building a plant there. What are they exposing their enterprise to?
  • Sprinklers and codes. Providing automatic sprinklers in a building protects both its occupants and its activity, making it a far more resilient facility and thus a greater contributor to sustainable development. Sprinklers protect society against the broader impact of fire and should be the starting point and mainstay of a build­ing’s fire protection philosophy. It is therefore appropriate that legislation have, through building codes, require­ments and incentives for the provision of fire sprinklers in all public, commercial and industrial buildings.

Insurance premium savings for an individu­al location will rarely justify the cost of adding an automatic fire protection if a traditional cost-benefit analysis is per­formed. Yet, a properly designed and installed sprinkler system will reduce both the probability and severity of a major fire. Companies, in turn, will certainly benefit from better and more stable insurance premium compared with those that do not see the value of sprinklers. Sadly, the latter approach will leave many unprotected facilities at increased risk of a major fire, not to mention the wider economic, societal and sustainability consequences associated with the event. n

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Brendan MacGrath is the manager of the International Codes and Standards Group at FM Global. He is responsible for working to support code organizations and stakeholders in facilitating the construction of well-protected, sustain­able and resilient properties worldwide.


Article Published on Sprinkler Age. Vol 28/02. Issue February 2009.

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