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Fire Suppression Failures

Some fire suppression systems have enhanced the blazes they were meant to quench, complicating liability.

December 06, 2011 Photo
When evaluating fire loss claims, consider the role of the sprinkler system. Questions should focus not just on whether the system engaged or not but, rather, if the system was properly designed, installed, inspected, tested and maintained properly. In some cases, the fire suppression system can actually intensify a blaze.


In general, most jurisdictions have adopted the following into their building codes: National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 13 Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems, NFPA 13D, Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler System in One- and Two- Family Dwellings and Manufactured Homes, or NFPA 13R, Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems in Residential Occupancies up to and Including Four Stories in Height. As for inspection, testing, maintenance and service, most jurisdictions will require that owners and contractors meet the requirements of NFPA 25 Standard for the Inspection, Testing and Maintenance of Water-Based Fire Protection Systems. Both NFPA 13 (including NFPA 13D and 13R) and NFPA 25 place significant burdens and costs on building owners.


Sprinkler systems can be grouped into one of four categories: wet, dry, antifreeze and deluge. A wet system is always filled with water, a dry system is filled with compressed air, and an antifreeze system is filled with antifreeze solution. A deluge system (also called a pre-action system) is empty until a sensor activates the system, causing the suppressant to rush in. NFPA 13 and 25 have strict standards related to each type of sprinkler system. The design of a system is the bedrock of its ability to function properly, but the installation is filled with potential for error. There are also ongoing obligations to test, inspect, and maintain the sprinkler system to keep it in top condition.


Antifreeze Systems Under Review
In 2011, significant changes were made to NFPA 13 and 25 standards in relation to antifreeze systems. These systems are popular because they can be installed in unheated spaces such as attics, exterior walls, etc., without the additional equipment, maintenance and service costs associated with dry systems. However, antifreeze systems underwent intense scrutiny as a result of a terrible tragedy. In August 2009, a sprinkler system in an apartment complex in Truckee, Calif., was activated but did not suppress the fire. In fact, it accelerated it. The incident began as a grease cooking fire, and a sprinkler system with a reported 71.2% concentration of glycerin antifreeze deployed during the fire. The resulting effect was an extended fire and an explosion in which a fatality and other serious injuries occurred. Millions of dollars in property damages were incurred.


Following the Truckee incident, the NFPA initiated a research project in conjunction with the Fire Protection Research Foundation. The NFPA's investigation revealed a possibility of flash fires associated with various concentrations of antifreeze solution used in sprinkler systems. If the solution had too much of the antifreeze chemical, then it could spread a fire rather than suppress it.
In July 2010, the NFPA issued a safety alert providing that residential antifreeze systems should be drained and replaced with water. A month later, the NFPA Standards Council issued three Temporary Interim Amendments (TIAs) that, in effect, would ban the use of antifreeze systems in residential new construction. The Truckee incident and the resulting research and NFPA responses put the future viability of antifreeze sprinkler systems in serious question.


As part of its February 28-March 1, 2011 meeting, the NFPA Standards Council reviewed and issued three new TIAs that would impact NFPA 13, NFPA 13D and NFPA 13R. Under these new TIAs, antifreeze systems can be installed as long as the solution is factory-produced and meets certain maximum concentrations of the antifreeze chemical. The new sprinkler systems would also require special testing and verification that such requirements are met. In addition, to deal with existing antifreeze systems, a TIA was issued for NFPA 25 that would require annual testing and certification that the proper type and concentration of antifreeze solution was in an existing system. The recent updates to NFPA 13 and 25 will make annual testing, inspection and maintenance more costly and could potentially lead to significant costs for the removal and replacement of an existing sprinkler system.


In addition to investigating the root cause and damages caused by a fire, it is critical to consider the issue of why a fire spread from its beginning stages. Sprinkler systems are now required for new residences in several jurisdictions, so this issue may arise in commercial and homeowner claims. An investigation into the sprinkler system can be done with just a few questions, but it may require a consultant's assistance depending on the answers.


Above all, avoid overlooking sprinkler systems during claim evaluations. Determine the type of sprinkler system, whether it activated and suppressed the fire as intended, and if it shut down properly. When in doubt, or if there are obvious problems, then it's time to call in a sprinkler system expert. Remember that attention should be paid to the system's age, inspection, testing and maintenance history. If it does contain antifreeze solution, the recent changes to NFPA 13 and 25 should have been followed, which may require replacement or at least additional testing, inspection and care. Paying close attention to this in the claims evaluation process will have a significant impact on claims payments, subrogation and on future losses that may affect the property.

Erick Kirker is a member of the Subrogation and Recovery Department at Cozen O'Connor, practicing in the firm's Philadelphia office. ekirker@cozen.com
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