How fire departments can work with sprinkler systems to ensure firefighter safety
NFPA Journal®, May/June 2011
The value of inspections and pre-incident planning at large storage facilities cannot be over-emphasized. The Life Safety Code defines a storage occupancy as one used primarily to shelter goods, merchandise, products, vehicles, or animals, and fire departments need to plan accordingly. NFPA 1620, Pre-Incident Planning, provides criteria for developing pre-incident plans to effectively manage emergencies.
The fuel load of stored materials greatly affects extinguishment, and the presence or absence of an automatic sprinkler system is a crucial consideration. A properly designed, maintained, and operating system will control most fires and reduce the hazard to firefighters and occupants.
During inspections, valves and sprinkler system components must be checked for operability. In addition, stored materials should be checked to ensure they are within the sprinkler system’s design capabilities. Storing empty pallets in a central area is common, but such pallets create a fire potential far beyond the capacity of most sprinkler systems.
Pre-incident plans should address the location of sprinkler valves and fire department connections; the storage commodity classification; access and egress locations; type of construction; the height and stability of stored materials; roof ventilation options; and required water flow. In calculating rate-of-flow, you may think it would be impossible to extinguish a fire involving a large area of the building. However, relatively small fires can occur in large buildings. A defensive operation would be warranted for a large-area fire, but a safe offensive attack may be possible if the fire is confined to a limited area.
When conducting interior operations deep in a large warehouse, you will need extra time to leave the building, so rapid intervention crew staffing should be increased and alternative egress identified.
The primary tactic at a sprinklered warehouse is to avoid actions that would adversely affect the sprinkler system, such as prematurely shutting off the system water supply. Fire companies should support the sprinklers with additional water supplies, making sure valves are in the “on” position and completing extinguishment. Officers should be familiar with NFPA 13E, Recommended Practice for Fire Department Operations in Properties Protected by Sprinkler and Standpipe Systems, which provides basic procedures for fire department operations at properties equipped with certain fixed fire protection systems.
Sometimes, however, sprinkler systems fail to control a fire due to damaged piping or valves, a fuel load beyond their design capacity, a compromised water supply, or other factors. The 1982 K-Mart warehouse fire in Pennsylvania is an example of the loss potential in storage occupancy fires. The warehouse, covering nearly 1.3 million square feet (120,774 square meters), was fully sprinklered and compartmentalized, yet it was destroyed when aerosol cans of carburetor cleaner that exceeded the sprinkler system design capacity ignited and rocketed from the compartment of origin to other compartments, eventually spreading the fire throughout the building. When developing his pre-incident plan for the warehouse, the local fire chief recognized the collapse potential and the futility of manual firefighting operations for a well-involved fire. Had he not, several firefighters could have died.
Large storage buildings present a significant fire hazard, particularly if they are not sprinklered. Pre-incident planning, careful tactics, and extra staffing are essential in conducting a safe, effective fire attack.
This column is adapted from the author's book StructuralFireFighting, (800) 344-3555.