Let me start by saying that I do not claim to be an expert on fire suppression systems, but I do know several experts. The question that I pose in this article is: Will your fire suppression system do what you need it to do if a fire occurs? In other words, does your system provide the necessary protection, or did you buy the cheapest system with the fewest “bells and whistles” to simply get by? Another question that you must ask is: what does my older system do and not do? Fire suppression systems are Band-Aids that operate due to a failure of some kind, usually a human failure.
Proper inspection, testing, and maintenance is necessary to ensure that your system will work properly once activated.
A recent fire involved a fryer system in the kitchen. The hood system activated and discharged. From my understanding, the system was an older system that did not cut off the fuel that fed the burners to the fryer. Once the system had dumped completely, the burners continued to heat the fuel, which caused a reigniting of the fuel. This allowed the fire to extend beyond the point of origin. At this point, the suppression system goes from a chemical extinguishing agent to the sprinkler system, if there is one. Unless a system is a deluge system, where all heads activate once one head is activated, sprinkler heads activate one by one as their fusible links activate, usually due to heat. Though many times a fire suppression system may extinguish a fire completely, it is designed to suppress a fire to the point that the building’s occupants can safely escape.
Newer buildings have, at the least, what fire and building codes allow. Fire suppression systems are evaluated on the written plans long before construction begins. Once construction is under way, the building inspector’s office and the Plans Review Section of Chesterfield Fire & EMS monitor, inspect, and approve fire suppression systems. Once a building is occupied, fire inspectors look at maintenance and testing records, usually done by outside contractors, while doing routine inspections. Once a fire happens, fire and insurance investigators dig to find the cause and to disseminate information to the public. They work with all entities involved to resolve the problem, if there is one, hoping to prevent this from occurring again. Older systems are the ones that require the most attention. Retrofitting may be expensive, but it is necessary. You need to know what your older system will and will not do.
This brings me to another issue concerning fire suppression systems. Sprinkler systems are fed by the domestic system until the fire department supplements the system by placing an engine on the connection. I was at a newly-opened grocery store in our area where a car was parked right in front of the sprinkler connection for the building. The car was parked in a designated parking place. The yellow curbs, usually indicating a fire lane, were on the entranceway to the parking lot, where the hydrant for the connection is located. I just called to inform someone in the Fire & Life
Safety Division about the issue. Something for readers to think about, even if parking places exist around a fire department connection, is that we still must consider that a fire could happen while we are there. The harder we make it for firefighters to make their connections, the less likely it is that the sprinkler system will be able to do the job that it was designed to do.
Fire suppression systems are designed with protection and safety in mind. The only opportunity for the London high-rise fire to be slowed or stopped would have been with a sprinkler system. When the refrigerator malfunctioned, leading to the fire, sprinklers in the vicinity would have activated. Once the fire made it to the outside of the building, the sprinkler system would not suppress any of the fire outside of the building. If a sprinkler system had been present, then there would have probably been a fire alarm system, which is designed to notify building occupants and, if monitored, it would have notified the fire department. Fire protection and suppression systems are Band-Aids, but vitally important ones.