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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.


( 43 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 22nd, 2007 12:34 pm (UTC)
I didn't know how sprinklers worked, I really did think they all went off at once. Of course if that kept me from being on fire I was really not objecting to that scenario at all. Very informative piece.
Jun. 23rd, 2007 08:36 am (UTC)
Thank's much; I've encountered the misconceptions about sprinklers so often that I knew I had to dispell them before defending their use.
(Deleted comment)
Jun. 23rd, 2007 08:37 am (UTC)
Thank you.
Jun. 22nd, 2007 02:48 pm (UTC)
An old boyfriend of mine (my one through my Senior Year, lol) worked for a Fire Systems company out of Indianapolis.

Constantly, he was taking trips to Atlanta, California, places with problems with fires and fighting the battle to keep fire sprinklers in businesses.

Mostly, he dealt with hospitals, which is a fairly easy battle to win over, lol... but occasionally, he had to deal with Factories who didn't want to risk profits.

I can't imagine what he must think about our recent tragedy. =(

*huggles every firefighter volunteer or profession in the world*
Jun. 23rd, 2007 08:40 am (UTC)
The sad thing nobody knows is that the dollar loss to fire in this country is *much* higher than the dollar loss to crime; yet no one seems to have a problem with the much larger amount of money we spend in crime prevention every year.
(no subject) - sunshine_tears - Jun. 23rd, 2007 12:21 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 22nd, 2007 03:06 pm (UTC)
Good article, and I can fully understand your strong emotion reaction. A couple of question:
- Where does the insurance industry sit on this issue? If a property owner's premium is cut in half (or more, or whatever) then that's a pretty powerful incentive for them to insist on sprinklers or to get them retrofitted.
- Are there systems made for homes?
Jun. 23rd, 2007 09:00 am (UTC)
systems for homes
Oh, yes: the sprinkler action kit I referred to was specifically designed to fight against residential sprinkler system laws. They're much more simple and basic than what's used in business and industry. Residential sprinklers are designed to save lives and prevent the spread of fire, rather than completely put the fire out, but they're still a huge benefit.

The insurance industry, construction industry and politicians kind of sit in each other's pockets on this one. Sprinklers will generally get rates lowered, but not enough to monetarily justify the cost of installing them, and the insurance companies for some reason are swallowing their losses without pushing for stronger laws.

I'm not *saying* palms are being greased, mind you ... but basically there's a good deal of compromise. As an example, if large buildings are divided into areas by firewalls, they often don't have to have sprinklers. This is a throwback to "fire proof" construction, in which it's assumed the building can't burn, so extra effort isn't needed.

For instance, the Iroquois Theater in Chicago was actually advertised as being "completely fireproof" in 1903; 602 people died during a matinee performance. It wasn't the first or last time; as you know, people don't tend to learn from history.
Jun. 22nd, 2007 05:13 pm (UTC)
You know what I think about the lack of legislation.
Jun. 22nd, 2007 05:24 pm (UTC)
Well, anyone living on your island is going to know about fires causing unnecessary loss of life.
(no subject) - curiouswombat - Jun. 22nd, 2007 07:53 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - gillo - Jun. 22nd, 2007 11:26 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - curiouswombat - Jun. 23rd, 2007 10:31 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ozma914 - Jun. 24th, 2007 05:35 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - curiouswombat - Jun. 24th, 2007 01:04 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ozma914 - Jun. 25th, 2007 12:04 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - gillo - Jun. 24th, 2007 12:11 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - curiouswombat - Jun. 24th, 2007 01:13 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - gillo - Jun. 24th, 2007 01:18 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - curiouswombat - Jun. 24th, 2007 01:56 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ozma914 - Jun. 25th, 2007 12:07 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ozma914 - Jun. 25th, 2007 10:38 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ozma914 - Jun. 23rd, 2007 09:14 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - curiouswombat - Jun. 23rd, 2007 09:56 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ozma914 - Jun. 24th, 2007 05:46 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ozma914 - Jun. 23rd, 2007 09:11 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - gillo - Jun. 24th, 2007 12:13 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ozma914 - Jun. 23rd, 2007 09:01 am (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 22nd, 2007 05:25 pm (UTC)
Good article, Mark. This is one of those things where only detailed and strictly-enforced regulation can work. And it's about time that happened.
Jun. 23rd, 2007 09:03 am (UTC)
Yes, far past time.
Jun. 22nd, 2007 05:42 pm (UTC)
That's part of what I love about my building. Built more than 30 years ago and built to the highest possible fire safety standards, costs be damned and a full sprinkler system in the underground garage as well. (Of course when the mafia builds something it's built to protect them!) In 30 something years we have had one fire in the building, which was completely contained to one unit that resulted in no loss of life, no damage to anyone else's property and was easily extinguished.
Jun. 23rd, 2007 09:05 am (UTC)
That's a great story; but then, as you mentioned, people with the power and money to do so often take care of their own safety. I'll bet every building in Washington used by Congress members is just as well protected.
(no subject) - sarahkucera - Jun. 23rd, 2007 07:31 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ozma914 - Jun. 24th, 2007 04:56 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - sarahkucera - Jun. 24th, 2007 10:54 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ozma914 - Jun. 25th, 2007 08:40 am (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 22nd, 2007 06:30 pm (UTC)
Well said! I mourn for those families who have lost their loved one and worry for all of you who are in danger often.

Greed is killing society....literally in this case. Cost cutting and making a "bottom line" choice that leads to illness or death is disgusting but not limited to the construction industry I'm afraid.

Like your other post (RE: Indiana and bigotry)...the problem is within HUMANS across the board, with no borders...not isolated to one place or industry. We need to start to care more about others as we used to be taught to do. There was a day when people tried to live to a form of personal honor and integrity...now "greatness" is often who has the most toys.

You said it perfectly.

Jun. 23rd, 2007 09:08 am (UTC)
You're absolutely right, this is simply a symptom of an overall problem.
Jun. 22nd, 2007 07:12 pm (UTC)
This is really interesting. I had no idea about the sprinkler issue, and I think it's really sad that people in these industries think it's okay to risk human life to save a few bucks.
Jun. 23rd, 2007 08:35 am (UTC)
I'm sure they rationalize it as "acceptable risk", or something of that nature; I can't imagine that any of them sit in a board room, twirling their moustaches and actually *saying* they don't care if people die. Let's not forget that it took some palm greasing of various politicians, too.

And that's as close to defending them as I'm going to get.
Jul. 1st, 2007 10:14 pm (UTC)
Sorry to be late commenting - I did read this when you posted it. It was very informative and thought-provoking and, like many others, I didn't know this information about sprinklers.
Jul. 6th, 2007 04:52 am (UTC)
I'm glad you got something out of it, and I'm especially glad to have spread the word about sprinklers; although I suspect sprinkler protection will remain an uphill battle.
( 43 comments — Leave a comment )

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