Locked Up + Protected
Automatic sprinklers and the problem of prison fires
NFPA Journal®, May/June 2012
The prison fire in Honduras that killed more than 358 inmates in February is the latest in a series of devastating fires around the world in prisons and other facilities in which occupants are behind locked doors or cannot otherwise exit on their own. Other fire losses in the past decade include the deaths of 83 prison inmates in Santiago, Chile, in 2010; 103 inmates in another Honduran prison in 2004; and 50 in a prison in Morocco in 2002. Nowhere are individuals at greater risk from fire than in situations where escape is impossible without a great degree of staff assistance.
Automatic sprinklers are a logical solution to the problem of controlling a prison fire before it can become dangerous, and the special concerns associated with developing systems for these settings have led sprinkler manufacturers to develop specialized products known as institutional sprinklers. The 2007 edition of NFPA 13, Installation of Automatic Sprinklers, is the only edition to include a definition of institutional sprinkler, which was defined as “a sprinkler specially designed for resistance to load-bearing purposes and with components not readily converted for use as weapons.” This captures the special concerns of correctional facilities, psychiatric wards, and other places where individuals might be secured: Sprinklers and their components should not become tools that can be used for self-destruction or to attack others.
However, this definition is no longer in NFPA 13 because the term was not used elsewhere within the standard. There are no special requirements affecting the use of institutional sprinklers, nor are there specific requirements for these sprinklers in the U.S. building codes. Institutional sprinklers are simply sprinklers with special features that are intended for a niche application.
The first institutional sprinkler was marketed in 1983. A tamper-resistant, standard-response sprinkler, it had no sharp edges or readily accessible parts or tie points, thereby opening the door to the use of sprinklers in proximity to prisoners. Similar products have followed, but each manufacturer has its own criteria associated with how its institutional devices perform. For example, if a sprinkler is intended to use a breakaway feature to prevent the potential for suicide, there are no product standards or other listing requirements that specify the maximum load. Makers of these types of devices generally publish their breakaway loads but make no warranties regarding their adequacy.
What can be guaranteed is that a correctional facility with fire sprinkler protection will be safer than one without. In a building without readily accessible exits, safety must be provided by managing the fire in place, and automatic fire sprinkler systems give us that capability.
My recent election to serve as president of the National Fire Sprinkler Association means that this will be my final column.
It has been an honor to have been given the means to reach so many readers concerned with proper fire protection and the freedom to pursue so many different aspects of fire sprinkler and related suppression systems. Some columns have focused on important technical developments and performance issues, while others addressed more historic and cultural areas. “Heads Up,” first published in January 1999, is now in its 13th year. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to produce, in a sense, my own “NFPA 13.” Thank you.
Russell P. Fleming, P.E., is the executive vice-president of the National Fire Sprinkler Association.