According to statistics from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), a fire breaks out in a building every 60 seconds in the United States. Automatic sprinklers can play a vital role in saving lives and preservation of property. However, if building owners are not required to add sprinklers, they will not. Unfortunately, many older buildings are in exactly that situation because so-called “grandfather clauses” exempt them from sprinkler requirements or give them years to comply. Although grandfathering seems reasonable as it allows building owners time to come up with the capital needed to meet new code, the result is that both the people and the businesses operating in those older structures are put at risk. For example, there were no sprinklers to quell flames at the Charleston, South Carolina, furniture warehouse that cost nine firefighters their lives in June when the intense heat from a fire caused the roof to collapse.
The true cost of not having a full sprinkler system was made clear in the MGM Grand Hotel fire of 1980 in which 84 people died and 679 were injured. The problem was that only the restaurant, the casino, and the convention area had sprinklers in place.
During the building’s construction in 1972, the fire marshal had recommended a complete sprinkler system in the casino at a cost of $192,000. The owners chose not to follow that recommendation. After the fire, the hotel owners paid $223 million in legal settlements. No amount of money could bring back the dead, however. Authorities later said the sprinkler system could have prevented the fire from spreading.
But more than two decades later, other properties remain similarly unprotected and lives continue to be lost. On October 8, 2003, six people died in a fire at a high-rise known as the Brunswick Building in Chicago. Although the building had an alarm system, they had no sprinklers above the first floor.
Following the fire, Mayor Richard M. Daley pushed for revisions to the city’s building code. By January 2004, two ordinances were approved requiring sprinklers to be retrofitted in all high-rise apartments and commercial buildings, covering at least one-third of the gross square footage by 2008 and two-thirds by 2012. While some progress may be better than none, the long phase-in means that many facilities remain unprotected. Moreover, several landmark buildings were excluded altogether from the new mandate.
Within the same year, the risk was again highlighted. On December 6, 2004, a fire in the LaSalle Bank Building in Chicago started on the 29th floor and spread to the 30th floor. The building had a pump system to allow firefighters to get water to the floors, but having a sprinkler system in place could have stemmed the spread of fire and smoke prior to the fire official’s arrival.
Although numerous other problems contributed to the injuries of 35 people, an independent survey found the lack of sprinklers to be a major factor. But even after the fire, the city council approved an ordinance that gave commercial structures 12 more years to retrofit sprinklers.
Some building owners resist putting sprinklers in because they fear inadvertent water damage from false alarms more than they fear fire damage. This is not a valid assessment of comparative risks. If sprinkler systems are properly installed, designed, and maintained, the risk factor of inadvertent damage from water is nil in comparison to risk by damage from an actual fire.
The main reason that owners resist putting in sprinkler systems is the cost. Financial help may be forthcoming, however. Federal legislation has been introduced to provide tax incentives to businesses that install sprinkler systems. Proposals S.1566 and H.R.1824 would allow for the depreciation of the cost of an automatic sprinkler system over a five-year period.
This legislation would help by providing a tax incentive to commercial property owners reducing the cost of the installation. Currently the House bill has 134 cosponsors, but the Senate bill has only three.
Regardless of whether those bills pass, cities ought to do away with grandfathering provisions for fire and life-safety codes. Meanwhile, owners and managers of still- grandfathered buildings should consider installing sprinklers. As many unfortunate real-life incidents have shown, the cost of a sprinkler system installation is minor compared to the loss in life and property that the building would suffer if it had a fire without sprinklers.
John M. Hewitt, CPP, CIPM, (Certified Institutional Protection Manager) is senior security manager for CB Richard Ellis in Dallas. He is a member of the ASIS International Council on Fire and Life Safety.