The company officer should be a role model for their crew in many respects. One of the emerging roles that company officers must be more educated about is residential fire sprinkler systems and the influence they can have on both firefighter and occupant safety.
Let's start with a bit of history. During the middle of the 19th century, a number of severe fires occurred in textile and paper mills in New England. Those fires, caused by lint and paper debris, spread so rapidly that they could not be controlled by traditional manual firefighting.
The fire protection engineering solution was to install a system of manually operated perforated pipes at the ceiling, thereby creating one of the first fixed fire-suppression systems.
Refinement of these crude first-generation devices ultimately led to the development of the automatic sprinkler. The first patent for an automatic sprinkler was awarded to Henry S. Parmelee in 1874.
Frederick Grinnell further refined the sprinkler design in the early 1880s. From those early beginnings, many of the advances in fire protection were brought about by the insurance industry's desire to minimize payments for insured property losses.
Sprinklers' safety role
The advantages of residential fire sprinkler systems are fairly well known in the fire service. Briefly, they give residents time to escape and contain fire close to the point of origin or greatly slow its progress.
That first point is critical because the primary goal of a residential fire sprinkler system is life safety for the building occupants. The time to flashover in today's homes has been dramatically reduced due to lightweight construction materials, open room designs, and carpeting and furnishings made of synthetic materials that burn hotter and faster than those in older homes.
The synergistic effect of those factors has dramatically reduced the occupants' window of escapability — that is, the time to get out. Even in a home with properly installed and working smoke detectors, occupants may not have the time to escape.
The threat to occupants comes from fire moving quickly from room to room and cutting off their escape route. It also comes from the toxic, super-heated gasses rendering them incapacitated.
Fire sprinklers work so fast they often put out a home fire before the fire department arrives. Instead of launching a major fire suppression effort, arriving firefighters will likely encounter a situation that will require only a mop-up operation with one fire stream, turning off the sprinkler system and moving in to an aggressive salvage mode of operations.
Fire officers' role in fire prevention
Without sprinklers, it typically takes nine to 12 minutes from the time a fire starts to the time the first-due crew arrives. Add another two to three minutes to conduct a size-up and for the crew to advance a hose line to begin fire suppression.
The fire situation the crew is now about to encounter is either ready to flashover or has already flashed over and the structural integrity of the building has been compromised. Either way the risk to officer and crew is substantially higher.
When it comes to the safety and well-being of officer and crew at any fire, and particularly in residential housing, the architects, developers and builders are not your friend.
Their mission is not to build homes that are safe for occupants or firefighters in the event of a fire. Except where compelled by building codes, their mission is to build a structure that won't fall down using the least-expensive materials and construction techniques.
Company officers and their fellow firefighters are the fire and life safety subject-matter experts in their community whether they've previously embraced that role or not.
For the company officer to be an effective advocate for residential fire sprinkler systems, he must first be informed and educated. Next, the officer must become an advocate, which means following these four steps.
- Educate firefighters on why residential sprinklers are important for resident and firefighter life safety.
- Teach firefighters how to manage a fire that's been extinguished or controlled by a residential sprinkler.
- Demonstrate a positive attitude towards residential sprinklers in interactions with community members.
- Become part of the process to make residential fire sprinklers a requirement for new single- and multi-family construction.