Nine firefighters died June 18, in a furniture warehouse fire in Charleston, South Carolina. It was the largest number of line of duty deaths in one incident since 9/11.
At this writing that’s about all we know with certainty. From what I’ve seen, my guess is the disaster started with a flashover, when intense heat causes the entire interior to reach its ignition temperature at once and trap firefighters in an instant inferno. That’s speculation: First they need time to mourn down there, then will come the investigation.
Investigators will look into the fire’s cause, firefighting tactics, and issues such as manpower levels, response times, and decisions made by officers.
I wonder if they’ll investigate the construction industry?
The day after the fire I heard something that sticks in my mind like an ongoing nightmare: There were no fire sprinklers in this huge, furniture stuffed building. The irony is that I received an article a month ago, on the subject on sprinklers. This is supposed to be a humor column, so I pass on a lot of serious issues, but this one was forced on me.
Let’s start by explaining fire sprinkler systems: water pipes, with sprinkler heads at regular intervals. They’re typically engineered for a certain business – in other words, a system for a steel warehouse delivers more water than one designed for, say, a cardboard manufacturer. If the cardboard maker moves into an old steel warehouse, the sprinklers must be reengineered.
One common misconception – thank you, movies and TV -- is that all the sprinklers go off at once, soaking the entire building. In reality, each sprinkler head is individually stopped with a device designed to release water spray at a certain temperature, so most fires are extinguished or controlled by just a few heads near the fire. Is there water damage? Yes, but not nearly as much as portrayed on TV. Without sprinklers, there’s still water damage – from fire hoses – in addition to much greater flame, smoke and heat damage.
The most sprinkler heads I ever saw open at a fire was about a dozen, because the heat from a trash compactor fire – which the sprinkler system didn’t extend into – kept setting off heads until we got inside to douse the flames. If not for the sprinklers, we’d have lost an entire factory (which instead is still operating, 20 years later).
That disproves another common misconception: that a partial system is a reasonable alternative. In the incident I spoke of the spread of fire was prevented, but a large building was completely filled with smoke. The same thing happens in a partial system, in which areas such as hallways, basements, or upper floors are covered by sprinklers.
In 1980 all of the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas was sprinklered, but fire started in an attached, unsprinklered casino, and filled the hotel with smoke. Eight-seven people died. So a partial system, a poorly engineered system, one that’s been shut off or vandalized, or one put out of commission by a crash or explosion – think World Trade Center – can fail.
But there has never been a multiple death fire in a building protected by a full, function sprinkler system.
Single deaths have happened in small, smoky fires that started close to the victims, especially if they were invalids or incapacitated in some way; falling asleep with a lit cigarette is an example. But between sprinklers and smoke detectors, almost all fire deaths could be prevented, and billions of dollars in property saved. Then, since most fires would be small and easily extinguished, we would stop losing most of a hundred American firefighters killed every year.
So why do building lobbyists fight legislation to mandate sprinkler systems? Why does the construction industry fight each and every attempt to require this life saving technology?
A certain home builders association even put together a Residential Sprinkler Action Kit. For what? To educate people on the use of home systems? Nah. It was to fight against sprinkler requirements. Sprinklers, which can be installed in new buildings for about $2 a square foot, cut into their profits.
Last time I checked the web site, the Residential Sprinkler Action Kit link was taken down; maybe they figured out they were stepping onto a shaky roof with that idea. You had to be a member of the association to access the details, so I only know it was a tool intended to be used by construction industry lobbyists in fighting pro-sprinkler legislation.
It’s important to note that I’m speaking of the top level of the construction industry, kind of their Big Oil. It’s the place where money flows up to, while everything else flows downhill. I’m not talking construction workers, foremen, are even local contractors, who are often volunteer firefighters themselves. As long as sprinklers aren’t mandated for everyone, it’s difficult to provide them voluntarily and remain competitive.
In fact, most contractors strictly obey building codes, and don’t cut corners. There’s a lot of good quality building going on, and I’m not saying anyone’s breaking the law. What I’m suggesting is that the law doesn’t go far enough. (And for that, of course, I also blame our legislatures.)
The building in Charleston was about half a century old, built before the latest sprinkler ordinance was enacted, and apparently no laws were broken by the current owners. Doesn’t matter. Any building can be retrofitted; it costs more than putting them into new buildings, but if you want to argue about how much nine human lives are worth, be my guest.
All I know is that the construction industry is fighting with all their lobbying might to prevent any new requirements for sprinkler systems, home or business. The reason: It increases the price of new construction, which cuts into their profit. The math is simple: Sprinklers save lives + the construction industry doesn’t want them = the construction industry is killing people for money.
Every day a new structure goes up, meets every building code, and waits for the day when a firefighter or civilian will die inside. It’s time to require that every new building, regardless of type or use, have a full sprinkler system. Don’t tell me firefighters should just stay out of unsafe buildings – tell the civilians who would have died inside that Charleston warehouse if they had. Tell firefighters not to do their job when they never know for sure if someone’s inside. Tell the widows, sons and daughters.
Stop killing firefighters for profit.