Movies typically over-dramatize how fire sprinklers operate. But what about a news story?

Before I was 21, I had no idea how fire sprinkler systems operated. My first day on the job in the fire protection business proved to be illuminating, as it was then I learned that in a fire scenario, the only water discharged comes from the fire sprinkler(s) that had fused.

A fusible link in that sprinkler (or sprinklers) will activate if and only if the surrounding atmosphere has reached a temperature of somewhere in the vicinity of 165 degrees F. What a perfect concept: The fire would be extinguished at a very early stage, thereby limiting both fire and water damage.

With a properly installed wet-pipe fire sprinkler system in operation, the only component that needs to work is the fire sprinkler itself. The entire system is mechanical in concept, and the discharged water is gravity-pressurized.

When I was in my teens, like most people, a lot of what I knew about how the world worked was information that I picked up from television or movies.

Sadly, many people today learn how to talk, interact with others, react to situations, drive a car, converse with the opposite sex, solve everyday problems or even cook a dinner by watching someone else do the same thing on a TV or movie screen. And that adds up to big problems for the fire sprinkler industry.

The last time I saw a sprinkler system “operate” on prime time television was during an episode of Comedy Central’s “Reno 911!” in which an actor engaged a manual pull station in a VFW banquet hall. Every single fire sprinkler in the building immediately commenced to discharge a deluge of water. Apparently, the writers of these shows are under a collective delusion that this is how sprinkler systems work.

All this staged nonsense continues to mislead the public into believing the growing myth that sprinklers operate en masse, and under all sorts of conditions other than an actual fire. As a result, particularly for the relatively new but growing residential market, many people think sprinklers would cause more in water damage.

Unreal Reality

Movies and comedy shows might be forgiven for adding dramatic license to reality, but last summer, even a real news story was over-embellished.

Countless numbers of newspapers throughout the country ran an Associated Press news story on a June 25 incident at the Los Angeles Airport. The headline in my paper read, “Fire Sprinklers Douse Travelers at LAX.” The article began: “Fire sprinklers at a Los Angeles International Airport terminal turned on Sunday after a water pipe broke, dousing passengers waiting for flights or picking up their bags. Terminal One was temporarily evacuated, and the baggage claim and screening areas experienced minor flooding.”

The report continued with assorted descriptions of a “chaotic scene where people were rushing toward the doors and knocking over the check-in lines” and ended with garbage cans and buckets “spread out in a large section of the baggage claim area, gathering water drops that continued to fall from ceiling tiles.”

Obviously, anyone familiar with the basic workings of just one fire sprinkler system would have serious doubts believing this account. The fact is that in the article, just as in the movies, reality was not depicted.

'One Sprinkler'

No retraction to this story was ever printed. Recently I conversed with Tom Winfrey, a public relations spokesman for the airport who relayed to me that while “it was reported byThe Associated Press,” its reporter was actually out at LAX to cover an entirely different story. Winfrey said that “just one sprinkler head accidentally discharged,” although the actual cause of that accidental discharge (it was most likely inadvertently poked by a workman) had not yet come to his attention.

“It was a minor thing,” he said, “just a few people were affected by it. It was incorrectly reported. One sprinkler head failed, personnel adjusted pretty quickly and shut it off.” So much for chaotic scenes, sprinklers “turning on,” doused passengers, and water falling from ceiling tiles. And more to the point, the AP apparently has better things to do then to print retractions to misleading bogus stories that appear on page 7 of the Chicago Tribune.

A dramatic illustration of something that never truly occurred is definitely not the ideal way to expand the understanding of a life-saving product, nor to do anything to contradict the myth of many fire sprinklers spontaneously discharging that’s so often promulgated by members of film and media outlets.

What is maddening is the stark fact that when a fire sprinkler system operates in the manner that it is designed and quells a small fire, that crucial intrepid event which averts tragedy does not make the news. In a perfect world, these perfect actions of automatic fire safety would be included in newspaper articles that would end with statements such as these:

  • Fewer than five activated sprinklers control 90 percent of all fires in sprinklered buildings.
  • There has never been a multiple loss of life in a fully sprinklered building.
  • Fire sprinkler systems are performing as intended, saving lives and reducing property losses, every single day.
  • Where fire sprinklers are used, their performance record is virtually 100 percent.

    I will probably be 100 before I read such an article, at least in the mainstream press. And until that time, the widespread misconception of fire sprinkler systems has the entire fire sprinkler industry swimming against the tide, only compensated by the fact that the systems they continue to install will protect property and people from fire damage, death or injury. This goes for homes, restaurants, nightclubs, art museums, concert halls, nursing homes, office towers, hospitals, schools, petrochemical plants and warehouses.

    We all know what does make the news - when fire strikes in any of these structures not equipped with sprinklers, the resulting consequences are terrible.

    Still, the United States is home to the highest per capita rate of fire-related deaths in the world. My suggestion to contractors, engineers and others is to simply spread the word about how fire sprinklers actually work. Because the general population just doesn’t know.