Whenever I read something that includes statistical analysis, I recall that famous expression of sports enthusiasts: “Statistics never lie.” This is definitely the case concerning statistics presented on fire sprinklers in recent reports from the National Fire Protection Association and National Institute of Standards and Technology.
The NFPA report, U.S. Experience With Sprinklers and Other Automatic Fire Extinguishing Equipment, was released in 2007. It is based on fires reported to U.S. fire departments from 2002 through 2004, and confirms the effectiveness and reliability of automatic sprinkler systems as the key element in fire protection.
“This was one of the first reports where we’ve had the full use of the new coded information from version 5.0 of the National Fire Incident Reporting System,” says NFPA Assistant Vice President of Fire Analysis and Research John Hall, who wrote the report. “And that’s allowed us to separate sprinklers from non-water based suppression systems and to separate dry pipe sprinklers from wet pipe sprinklers from miscellaneous other sprinklers.”
According to Hall, sprinklers operate in 93% of all reported structure fires large enough to activate sprinklers, excluding cases of failure or ineffectiveness because of a lack of sprinklers in the fire area. He says the latest report shows that when sprinklers operate, they are effective 97% of the time.
Also from the NFPA report: More than two-thirds of the time when sprinklers fail to operate it is because either the water did not reach the fire (41%) or not enough water was released (29%). Only 4% of the time did the sprinkler fail because of a damaged component.
Because sprinkler components are so reliable, Hall says it’s equally important for sprinkler proponents to not downplay the role that human error (improper installation and/or maintenance) plays in negatively affecting sprinkler performance.
The NIST study, Benefit-Cost Analysis of Residential Fire Sprinkler Systems, shows that, for new home construction, a multipurpose network sprinkler system that connects to a house’s regular water supply and piping makes good economic sense. Released late last year, this study examined data from 2002 to 2005 to value the economic performance of a residential wet-pipe fire sprinkler system.
After subtracting installation costs and weighting the benefits by the odds that a house would catch on fire, NIST economists concluded that, depending on assumptions, the net gain from installing a sprinkler system (in 2005 dollars) would vary between $704 and $4,801 for a colonial-style house; $884 and $4,981 for a townhouse; and $1,950 and $6,048 for a ranch-style house, over the 30-year study period.
In all cases examined, the researchers found that the data supported the finding that multipurpose network residential fire sprinkler systems are cost-effective.
As Hall says, “In terms of the size of the impact on both life safety and property protection, there really isn’t a second choice that can do the same things as sprinklers.”
Like many studies before them, these two document the life-saving benefits of fire sprinklers. I am going to assume that such reports will continue to appear in the near future, rather than perish like the many people who fall victim to fire every year.