NFPA Call to Arms for Sprinklers

Jim Shannon, NFPA's president and CEO, set the tone for the group's annual World Safety Conference and Expo in June by reminding opening session attendees that being in the fire-protection industry often means a mandate to rock the boat. "Our historic role has been as an advocate for better protecting the public," said Shannon.

By Staff July 1, 2005

Jim Shannon, NFPA’s president and CEO, set the tone for the group’s annual World Safety Conference and Expo in June by reminding opening session attendees that being in the fire-protection industry often means a mandate to rock the boat. “Our historic role has been as an advocate for better protecting the public,” said Shannon. “NFPA, sometimes, has been ahead of that curve on these matters and often been criticized for that; but we must keep pushing.”

Of course, Shannon’s comments came as a prelude to a vote before the NFPA membership on changes to NFPA 101, Life Safety Code , which included a provision for mandatory sprinkling in nursing homes. The vote was approved later by the membership, but Shannon also implored colleagues to fight for mandatory sprinklers in all residential applications—a sticking point in recent code amendments in Chicago and New York, where sprinklers are now required for all commercial, but not residential, high-rises. “We’re going to keep fighting for sprinklers, residential too, because we know they save lives,” he said.

The 2006 editions of 101 and NFPA 5000, Building Construction and Safety Code , which were approved by the membership, also include language requiring automatic sprinkler protection in new single- and two-family homes. It’s now up to the Standards Council to approve the change, and ultimately, local jurisdictions to adopt the latest versions of the codes.

Things might get a little easier on the residential side if legislation currently before Congress is approved. During a presentation on new changes to the life-safety code, Tom Gardner, P.E., managing director of Schirmer Engineering’s Atlanta and Miami offices, noted that the proposed bill would make the payback time frame for sprinkler retrofits switch from 29 years to five years.

Elsewhere on the sprinkler front, Tyco made the major announcement that it has entered into a license agreement with Reliable Automatic Sprinkler Co., Viking Corp. and Victaulic Co. of America concerning Tyco’s low-pressure, early-suppression fast-response (LP/ESFR) sprinkler technology.

This agreement was reached on behalf of Central Sprinkler Co., the company that originally developed LP/ESFR technology before being acquired by Tyco. As part of this agreement, each of the licensees recognizes the patent claims of Central. The agreement fully resolves all claims and counterclaims asserted during four years of litigation activity, all of which will now be dismissed. The LP/ESFR system allows up to four stories of warehousing rack storage to be protected by sprinklers located only at the ceiling, allowing warehouses much greater flexibility than would be possible with in-rack sprinkler systems.

After some negative publicity from recalls of another line of Central’s sprinklers a few years back, the market is healthy, according to Tyco’s Tom Prymak. In fact, he said that it’s been a very good year, and that success is unrelated to the mandatory sprinkler legislation imposed by New York and Chicago. “For companies like us [code impacts] take a while,” he said.

Instead, Prymak attributes the boom to an underlying optimism in the economy, especially in California. Big box retail, he added, has also been a prime source of opportunity.

One potential sprinkler standard change, however, that may make many large retailers unhappy is a potential revision to NFPA 13, Installation of Sprinkler Systems , that would require mandatory rack storage sprinkling for any facility employing solid shelves. According to Warde Comeaux with Global Fire Protection Consulting, Inc., Concord, Calif., a firm specializing in fire protection for warehouses, this change could have a big impact if approved. “There’s an opinion that solid-shelf rack storage is ‘evil,’ and needs to be better protected, but I don’t see that,” said Comeaux. “Nobody has done any tests proving this, and I haven’t seen a history of this kind of fire to generate this kind of reaction.”

If the change passes, existing buildings would be grandfathered, but Comeaux warns that there may be local authorities who want to go backward. Of course, another alternative is the application of various early-detection systems. Comeaux, however, doesn’t believe NFPA will allow such a substitution.

On the subject of early detection, he feels incipient-stage smoke detection technology is making great strides, particularly in hospitals and computer rooms, but also in warehouses in place of traditional spot detection. For that matter, clean agents also have their place in certain protection schemes. “Water is not always good for everything and gaseous suppression is not good for everything, but overall clean agents are excellent and have their place,” said Comeaux.

That news came as a relief to the folks at 3M, who market a halon-like clean agent. While not downplaying the importance of sprinklers, they believe sprinklers get a little too much limelight, as early detection and special suppression also have a key role to play in fire protection. Granted, special suppression costs more than sprinklers, but they do have a proven record, according to 3M’s John Schuster. “The product is safe and easier to handle and that’s a big reason why clients are willing to pay a premium, besides the obvious environmental aspects,” he said.

Kate Haughton with Kidde-Fenwal, which distributes 3M’s Novec 13 as well as other clean-agent systems, said they’re seeing strong markets from pharmaceutical facilities and power plants to museums and even high-end homes. “We did a neat project involving the New American Castle, which was almost like a museum in some ways.”

The big need for early detection and special suppression in such cases, she said, concerns temperature. If a fire grows to a point where sprinklers have to engage, temperatures have reached a point that’s too hot to save a collection of rare wine or the like. Fenwal was also involved in a unique protection scenario involving the Statue of Liberty. In an unusual union, Fenwal teamed with Viega to use the latter’s radiant tubing to serve as the piping for their air-sampling smoke detection system.