What is a Forensic Fire Investigator?
(You may get wet/you won’t get dead)
All too often the media reports that “the fire destroyed the structure and or sadly “the victims were discovered by firefighters near the door”. Over the past decades, yes decades, I have been a proponent for sprinklers. Whether incorporated into the construction of commercial buildings, manufacturing or residential, I have witnessed first-hand the worth of these systems. Hollywood and the movies have done little to promote the need for these sprinkler systems. Of special memory was the “Towering Inferno” and “Back Draft”, big draws at the box office but not really a tribute to the need for Sprinklers. A big misconception is that when one [sprinkler head] goes “off” they all go “off”. No so. Typically only one to two sprinkler heads activate over the fire. These devices activate at a nominal temperature of 165 degrees F. The activated sprinkler heads disperse approximately 12-15 gallons of water in a fine mist. They are spaced 10 feet apart. New to the market are on-off heads. When a sprinkler head activates at a predetermined temperature and then the temperature drops, the sprinkler head shuts off and the water flow ceases.
As early as 1812, a British inventor Sir William Congreve recognized the need to have a controlled application of water on an open-burning- fire inside of buildings.
Although a make-shift design, it worked. Perforated pipes installed along the ceiling connected to a water control valve outside the structure were charged [filled with water], by open the valve when a fire was discovered inside the building. In 1874 Henry Parmalee of Connecticut created and installed the first automatic sprinkler system. Fast-forward, Frederick Grinnell improved on the system’s design and thus was “born” the closed head sprinkler system and thus (NFPA) 13, (NFPA) 13D and (NFPA) 13R. This document originated in 1896 as Pamphlet #13, there have been over 50 revised editions since.
Some commercial and manufacturing processes require total flooding systems with open heads that dump copious amounts of water onto the combusting material. Remember, fires are extinguished by water because, water is cheap and abundant. And, fires are extinguished with water because water has the ability to absorb heat; a side of the fire tetrahedron that the combustion process requires to maintain burning. [air/ fuel/heat/and the uninhibited chemical chain reaction that holds it all together]. This was previously known as the fire triangle.
I live in an area of Pennsylvania that is in the process of sustained growth. Many new homes, personal care homes, manufacturing facilities and shopping areas. The commercial facilities, etc. are in most cases sprinklered. What is unfortunate is the one and two family dwelling lack sprinklers. Many of the private family homes have price tags of $250,000 and more are NOT SPRINKLERED. Just recently in the local newspaper, an advertisement of gorgeous single family dwellings was featured. “Prices start at $499,000.00” and not a mention of sprinklers. I contacted the realtor, the response was, “no sprinklers”. In the discussion I asked why. The reply was, “too expensive”, and we are required to have smoke detectors, why have both? Clearly, we [the fire service] have a tremendous public relations and sales/benefit job on-our-hands.
As I write this article, a major fire has occurred in a multi-million dollar private family dwelling in Maryland. The structure was estimated to be at least 16,000 square feet and “built-like-a-castle”. Unfortunately lives were lost and the structure totally destroyed. Reportedly the fire occurred in the early hours when folks probably were asleep and reportedly there was NO SPRINKLER SYSTEM.
Another major fire has just occurred in New Jersey in a luxury apartment complex. An estimated 500-plus persons are homeless and 175 living units are totally destroyed. Fortunately there are no reported injuries or fatalities. If there is a positive side to this tragedy, the fire occurred in the afternoon.
A typical cost of a residential sprinkler system runs about $5,000.00 or less. A once and done cost and when amortized over a thirty-year mortgage is cost effective. What’s your life worth? For example water can be supplied thru “Blaze Master” PVC (plastic) piping off of a domestic water supply (Blazer Master is a registered trade name of the Lubrizol Corporation).
Using high density sprinkler heads, (on-off) the water delivery is efficient and effective; minimal water is dispersed over the ignited material and damage is kept to a minimum.
An associate, shared this article from a fire publication of 1890 [Firemen’s Herald]. “A fireman is as it were, a sentry placed over our firesides to protect our families against the most implacable of foes. He should be obedient to orders, ever faithful in the performances of his duty and ready and willing at all times to accept any post of danger, and to dash through fire and smoke to save, even at the risk if his life, our wives and children from the flames”. Perhaps the early thoughts and definitions of smoke alarms and SPRINKLERS [SYSTEM]?
For additional information and daily updates go to: www.sprinklersaves.com. Information on sprinklers is forwarded to you daily on your e-mail.
Ed Knight is a Certified Fire and Explosion Investigator (CFEI/CFII) and a fire instructor; a retired municipal assistant fire marshal, forensic investigator having investigated several thousand fires and testified over 60 times throughout the United States and several foreign countries. He is Chairman of the Live Burn Facility, Pequea Lane, Lancaster, PA.