Good Old Days-Good Old Boy Fire Protection

By James E. Art

 

The story you are about to read is true; the names have been omitted to protect the innocent, (and some people who should have known better!)

Also, the Statute of Limitations has probably expired.

My name is James Art. I’m a Fire Protection Engineer.

This takes place in the mid ‘70’s. (I’m not old - I’m experienced!)

I came from California to evaluate an old downtown high rise office building in a large city in a very large southern central border state. The building was unusual: Originally it was built as a three story building, with a tall “monumental” first floor, like a bank building. Then two more stories added, and later another five, making it a total of about 10 stories tall.

Just the facts, ma’am:

The owner was a large insurance company, which in those days meant huge amounts of paper files sideways on long open shelves, like some medical practices. I was concerned to see that the fire doors to the stairs had been blocked open, in this mostly unsprinklered building, to help the clerks carrying heavy loads of file folders.

The large basement was primarily a print shop and shipping operation, also full of paper plus machinery. This part of the building did have fire sprinklers. Inadvertently, I said: “The pipe is all half inch!” My guide, the Chief Engineer, said: “Well, all the sprinklers are half inch!” , which was true. Those sprinklers were nearly useless.

Then I noticed the concrete basement floor was raised in one area. It was up about 5 inches, in a rectangle about  eight foot by ten feet, and boxes of copy paper had been stacked on the raised section. I looked up and saw an amazing welded galvanized pipe fitting. Starting with a flanged 8 inch outlet, this assembly consisted of several elbows, and some piping, and went diagonally under some ducts, over and around, and finally back up to tie into another 8 inch flanged outlet. There were two parallel 8 inch screwed pipes that this connected together.

As I wondered what this was (I am an Engineer), suddenly it flashed: Missing Fire Pump.

Sure enough, the two pipes went all the way back to the fire “riser”, a horizontal pipe coming in thru the basement wall, and were tied in on either side of a check valve. The gages showed about 40 psi in the basement.

I asked Mr. Chief Engineer, and he said: “Yes, the old fire pump had been removed, as it needed maintenance.” He said all was been done under permit, and with written permission of the Fire Prevention Bureau (FPB). He’d be happy to show me the documentation. (They could have just abandoned and capped off the pipes, did not need to spend what was probably thousands of dollars to go around a check valve!)

In his office, filed properly, he had a letter asking the FPB for permission. They replied he needed to have an Engineer verify that there was at least 35 psi at the roof.

I assume this was for the standpipes, where today’s codes call for 100 psi, enough to account for loss in the hose, and still operate an adjustable fog nozzle. But in those days 65 psi was code, and 35 might’ve been enough for a straight stream.

Then he had a letter from a local Mechanical Engineer, saying there was 35 psi at the roof, and finally another letter from the FPB giving their permission to remove the fire pump.

I wondered how 35 psi was possible, given the height of the building, and the Chief Engineer offered to show me: There, on the roof, on an air conditioning unit, was an inch and a half gage showing about 35 psi! The fire standpipes would not have worked, even if several upper outlets in the stairwell were not found open, unless perhaps supplemented by the responding engine at an inlet.

I will not go into the sad stories of the fire alarms, and other fire features,

but there is a moral to this story:

In those days, very often the FPB was staffed with firefighters on temporary light duty, or sometimes officers passing through, on their way to promotion to a higher rank.

There is a lot to learn about the Building Codes, Fire Codes, alarms, sprinklers and standpipes. A wrong call can make a big difference in a fire, that doesn’t show up until then. And not all Good Old Boy Engineers actually know fire protection details. The FPB should understand what they are approving.

I strongly recommend FPB people be properly trained.

“Uniformed” should NOT mean Un-Informed.

Hopefully, today’s FPB personnel are more knowledgeable, better trained, and would not approve such a thing.

About theAuthor:

James E.Art is a Registered Fire Protection Engineer with over 25 years of experience. A graduate of the Illinois Institute of Technology Fire Protection Engineering program, he does expert witness work; design review and inspection for cities, architects, engineers; code consulting; High Piled Storage Fire Code Reports; Alternate Means and Methods Requests; hydraulic calculations, and sprinkler design.You may contact him in California by telephone at (925)846-5060.

FYI: When do you sprinkler Closets

in Dorms, Apts, Condos?

By James E. Art, Fire Protection Engineer

Q. “Do you need sprinklers in the Closets in Dormitories,

Apartments, Condos, Nursing Homes, etc.?

A. Per NFPA 13 (2016)the answer is “Yes - Always.”

Some Code Excerpts of interest:

Excerpts below are from NFPA 13 (2016 edition), currently enforced in California.

Note that an asterisk (“*”) indicates information in the Annex.

4.1 Level of Protection

A building, where protected by an automatic sprinkler system installation, shall be provided with sprinklers in all areas except where specific sections of this standard permit the omission of sprinklers.

Here is one such exception:

8.15.8.2* Closets and Pantries. Sprinklers are not required in clothes closets, linen closets, pantries within dwelling units in hotels and motels where the area of the space does not exceed 24 sq. ft … and the walls and ceilings are surfaced with noncombustible or limited combustible materials.

Note that this exception is different for hotels and motels than for other residential occupancies. More combustibles may be expected where more extended occupancy is likely, such as dormitories, apartments, condos,  live-work, etc. The 2013 Edition of NFPA 13 included a 3 foot least dimension requirement no longer in the Code.

(Here is a different exception for Hospitals, but not nursing homes, see below)

8.15.9* Hospital Clothes Closets.

Sprinklers shall not be required in clothes closets of patient sleeping rooms in hospitals where the area of the closet does not exceed 6 sq. ft, …, provided the distance from the sprinkler in the patient sleeping room to the back wall of the closet does not exceed the maximum distance permitted by 8.5.3.2.

And note the fire sprinkler does not have to be centered:

8.5.5.4 Closets. In all closets and compartments, including those closets housing mechanical equipment, that are not larger than 400 ft3 … in size, a single sprinkler at the highest ceiling level shall be sufficient without regard to obstructions or minimum distance to the wall.

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Clothes are mostly synthetic or blends. It is hard to buy pure cotton or natural materials. And clothes burn hot, fast, and fiercely.

One demonstration: In 1981 researchers used houses near the LA Airport scheduled for demolition, to run actual fire tests to try to help justify the NFPA 13D parameters for a less costly residential system. The system was called a Life Safety System, with a smaller meter, and fewer sprinklers in some areas. They hoped the sprinklers in the larger room would keep a fire in an unsprinklered closet from spreading. They filmed the fires.

One test was a closet fire, with typical clothing on hangers. As the fire started to take off, you can see lots of heavy dark smoke billowing out the top of the door opening, that later become burning gases, like the fire you see extending out of a window in a burning building.

Then you can tell that the camera operator is retreating, getting out of there!

Pretty soon he’s outside the building, filming thru the open door! It was clearly not safe in the room.

They had to call in the fire fighters standing by, to save the building, so they could use it again for more tests!

They did run another test with every fifth clothing article made of wool, and had a much slower fire.

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The answer to this question may be different if NFPA 13D or NFPA 13R are appropriate. Those standards are intended mainly to allow occupants to escape (hence the term “Life Safety Systems.”)  Property protection and fire extinguishing are secondary.

In the California Fire Code, based on the International Fire Code, most of the many important fire sprinkler trade offs such as extra stories or height, increased areas, increased travel distances, reduced fire alarm installations, etc. require the sprinkler system to meet NFPA 13.

Excerpt from CaFC (2016):

903.3.1.1 NFPA 13 sprinkler systems. Where the provisions of this code require that a building or portion thereof be equipped throughout with an automatic sprinkler system in accordance with this section, sprinklers shall be installed throughout in accordance with NFPA 13 as amended in Chapter 80 except as provided in Sections 903.3.1.1.1 and 903.3.1.1.2.

903.3.1.1.1 has exemptions for certain areas, including elevator machine rooms.

903.3.1.1.2 allows omission of sprinklers in certain occupancies in bathrooms less than 55 sq. ft, provided the walls and ceilings are non combustible or limited combustible with a thermal rating.

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About the Author:

 

James E. Art is a Registered Fire Protection Engineer with over 25 years of experience. A graduate of the Illinois Institute of Technology Fire Protection Engineering program, he does Expert Witness work; Design Review,  and Inspections for cities, architects, engineers; Code Consulting; High Piled Storage Reports; Alternate Means and Methods Requests; Hydraulic Calculations; and Design of Fixed Fire Extinguishing systems. You may contact him in California by phone at 925-846-5060

A similar version of this article was published in the Oct 2017 Fire Protection Contractor magazine, visit their website at www.fpcmag.com

The State Fire Marshal's Office has announced a kick-off meeting to review the current provisions of the codes in relationship to Group L occupancy requirements. Group L allows an alternate method of design for research labs that have regulated hazardous materials in excess of that permitted by the control area concept in Section 414. Without these provisions research laboratories would be limited to the first three floor levels above grade plane to have sufficient amount of regulated hazardous materials to conduct their operations or would have to be classified as a Group H occupancy. The Group L occupancy is a California created occupancy classification which became part of the 2007 California Codes and has not have a review or significant update since this time of introduction.

SFM would like to have persons participate in this review from all perspectives of users, developers, building owners, architects and those responsible for enforcement .At this time there is not a representative from a local building department and such individual would be extremely helpful. SFM is actually interested in having individuals having any form of interest in the review process and therefore has established a Web conference for those that may not be able to attend the actual Sacramento meeting.

This meeting  will be held August 221 to 4 PM at SFM Headquarters in Sacramento.

If you like to join the conference call: Call in 888-251-2909 Participant: 204798