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Boy is it Cold! How is your Automatic Fire Sprinkler System?

Author: Travis Rhoades

A recent publication by NFPA, Hall, J. R. (2010). “U.S. Experience with Sprinklers and Other Automatic Fire Extinguishing Equipment” reports the analysis of data from a single calendar year reveals approximately 120 inadvertent automatic fire sprinkler discharges per day.  Inadvertent discharges result in millions of dollars in damage per year.

Sprinklers inadvertently discharge for a number of reasons, the most common of which are: (1) non-fire related overheating; (2) freezing; (3) mechanical damage; (4) corrosion; (5) sabotage; and (6) component manufacturing defects. Blum, A., Long, R.T., Dillon, S., “Investigating Inadvertent Automatic Fire Sprinkler System Discharges,” Forensic Engineering, 2012.  Commercial properties are most likely to see an inadvertent discharge, followed by manufacturing facilities, homes and warehouses.  Id.

Critical aspects of evidence collection include the discovery and collection of each piece of the failed component. Blum, et al. at 530.  As usual, preparation for this type of investigation is critical.  As much as possible, be prepared in advance to look for the right components.  Consult the as-built drawings.  Look at the spare heads in the spare sprinkler box, and study the appearance of the activation elements, caps and seals.  Try to get there prior to the commencement of cleanup efforts.  If they have begun before you are invited, do your best to document what has been cleaned up and by whom, as the duty to preserve evidence attaches at the time a claim is evident.  Preservation of fracture surfaces is critical, as those surfaces often tell the story of the failure.

Buildings are smarter than they once were, so don’t ignore sources of information that might be held in Building Management Systems(BMS). Often you can find temperature measurements and set points for building equipment buried in the data of the BMS.  Further, ask for and evaluate the alarm data saved in the building and also saved at the central station.  The time-stamps on these sources helps identify the time of the discharge, if it isn’t a witnessed event.  Look at all available drawings and schematics to locate potential heat sources, communication paths and storage areas.  Finally, remember to ask for any building video.  Blum, et al. at 531.

Inadvertent automatic sprinkler losses are expensive and time-consuming losses. The fire protection benefits of a sprinkler system are cold comfort to the business owner wading through her inventory on the floor of her production and warehousing facility.  Whether you represent her, her insurer or any of the number of contractors involved in the construction or maintenance of the building and its systems, a thorough forensic evaluation of the evidence is critically important to discovering the cause of these failures.

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