Life safety sprinkler systems challenge workshop

NFPA recently published the report summarizing the results of this workshop.  Sponsored by NFPA, it took place December 14-15, 2015, in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. The report can be found at www.nfpa.org/lifesafetysprinklers. NFPA was prompted to convene this workshop because of several particular fires in buildings containing NFPA 13D or NFPA 13R sprinkler systems. Though representing a very small percentage of the fires in buildings with these “life safety sprinkler systems” and while those systems accomplished the goal of no loss of life, the buildings suffered significant property damage.  

These relatively rare fire events have led to a perception by the public, the media, and to some extent, the fire service that these sprinkler systems did not perform as intended. (See my column in the April 2015 Plumbing Engineering “Perception is Reality.”)

The workshop brought together a diverse group of stakeholders involved with residential sprinkler systems. Among the 56 persons who attended the workshop were representatives of the design community, sprinkler system installers and manufacturers, code officials, fire service members, building owners and the insurance industry.  

The report emphasizes the fact that NFPA 13R/13D are effective standards that reduce loss of life and building damage due to a fire event. It goes on to identify three areas where improvements can be made:

Codes and standards 

To provide further building protection, more consideration needs to be given to sprinkler protection of attics, balconies and other large unprotected areas in a building. 

Data collection 

In order to make improvements to NFPA 13R/13D, better data needs to be identified as well as collected on a consistent basis. 

Education 

To achieve a better understanding of the use and goals of NFPA 13R/13D, dedicated educational and training programs are necessary to ensure all stakeholders fully understand the standards.

Regarding changes to codes and standards, the general consensus among workshop attendees is that NFPA 13D and 13R are good documents that do not require significant technical changes. 

One recommended change to these documents would be to change their names to better reflect their role as life safety systems. I suppose that in the case of 13R the name would be something like, Standard for the Installation of Life Safety Sprinkler Systems in Low-Rise Residential Occupancies.  

On page 96 of the report PDF is a list of 32 fires that occurred in buildings with 13R systems that sustained significant fire damage. In looking at these incidents, it is apparent that many of these fires share things in common. Either a fire starting in an unprotected attic, or a fire starting in an unprotected area such as a balcony, building exterior, or concealed space and then proceeding to extend into the unprotected attic. Once the fire is in the attic it’s “Katy Bar the Door.”

To address this fire scenario, the workshop suggested an option to NFPA 13R for some form of additional protection for attic areas to be developed. This will be a challenge, as the omission of sprinklers in attics for 13R systems is one of the major trade-offs allowed for 13R systems, making them more affordable. Proposing attic sprinkler protection as an option implies there will be trade-offs to offset the additional costs. I am not sure what form these trade-offs could take. 

In one of the more concrete and well-developed ideas to deal with the attic situation is for our building and fire codes to provide better protection of attic areas in tall buildings. An example proposal in Appendix G of the report would require NFPA 13R systems to provide additional protection for attic spaces in cases where the eave of the highest pitched roof is more than 55 feet above the lowest level of required fire department vehicle access.   Additional protection for attic spaces could take the form of one of the following: 

  • sprinkler protection, 
  • use of all noncombustible construction, 
  • use of all fire retardant treated wood, or noncombustible insulation. 

With respect to data collection, it was determined there is a need to collect data that can better quantify the effectiveness of life safety sprinkler systems. We all sense from the abundance of anecdotal evidence that NFPA 13D and 13R systems are saving many lives, but we truly do not know how many.

Data is also needed to fy the factors that contribute to the low-frequencyhigh-consequence fire incident. Again, anecdotal information suggests it is attic fire. Are there other scenarios that need to be addressed?

Regarding education, the report describes a need to educate the general public about life safety sprinkler systems. The primary method to accomplish this would be through a public awareness campaign. Also, educating the media. Providing assistance to fire department public information officers to help them help the media understand the goals of the life safety sprinkler system.  

The education component also includes the firefighter. Provide them with a better understanding of the purpose of the life safety sprinkler system. Pre-planning should include the knowledge of what buildings have 13R systems. First responders, armed with this knowledge, can better anticipate the tactics needed on the fire ground to minimize the chance of one of these high consequence events.

One interesting aspect of the education component, which I am sure will please the insurance industry, is to educate developers about the benefits of upgrading to full NFPA 13 systems and providing 100 percent sprinkler coverage provided by that standard.

Through NFPA 13R, widespread acceptance of sprinkler systems in multi-family residences by our building codes has been achieved. Perhaps now is the time to nudge that acceptance towards NFPA 13 systems.

Samuel S. Dannaway, P.E., FSFPE is a licensed fire protection engineer and mechanical engineer with bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Maryland Department of Fire Protection Engineering. He is a past president and fellow of the Society of Fire Protection Engineers. He is vice president of Fire Protection Technology at Coffman Engineers Inc., a multi-discipline engineering firm with over 360 employees across eight offices. Dannaway can be reached at dannaway@ coffman.com. 

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