Sunday, October 9, 2016

Let's Get Serious for Just a Minute...

In honor of National Fire Prevention Week, recognized Oct 9 through 15, 2016, I’m reprinting, with permission, an essay written by a young friend of mine who wishes to remain anonymous. Our society has benefited greatly from the invention of an automatic sprinkler system.  Such a simple concept, when you read about it.  I found this a very interesting essay and I wanted to share it with you, and perhaps give you something to think about and be thankful for this week. (ps...any typos are mine as I had to transcribe from hard copy...)  

          Mrs. O’Leary and her fabled “cow-tastrophe” which resulted in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 would not have become legendary if automatic fire sprinklers had been installed in her barn.  But the first practical system would not be invented for another three years.
          Two-hundred people who perished when a gas lamp ignited a fire at the Paris Opera in 1897 would not have had their lives cut short had automatic fire sprinklers been installed.  But the first system was designed to protect commercial goods stored in warehouses, not to save lives.
          Four-hundred and sixty-four Paraguayans would still be alive today had there been sprinklers at the Ycuá Bolaños Botánico Supermarket when a fire swept through there in 2004.  But Asunción city code does not require automatic sprinkler systems be installed in new construction.
          While American Henry Parmalee is credited with the “invention” of automatic fire protection systems in 1871, his role was limited to the improvement and widespread commercial application of an idea that had been developed more than sixty years prior.  Credit should be share with Englishman John Carey, who, in 1896, developed the first heat-operated device which distributed water through a system of perforated pipes to extinguish a fire.  The “automatic” device consisted of a cotton string that, when burned through, would drop a counterweight and release a plug form the overhead pipes.  In 1812, Colonel William Cosgrove patented his design of perforated pipes with valves that limited water distribution to the sections where fire burned, so that what was not lost to fire was not lost to water damage, either.
          When Henry Parmalee’s fire insurance premiums for his piano factory in Connecticut rose after the costly fires in Chicago and Boston in the early 1870s, he was inspired to find a way to prevent fire damage, hoping to eliminate the expense of insurance.  He is credited with inventing the first modern automatic fire sprinkler system by combining and improving Carey and Cosgrove’s ideas.  Parmalee develop a technique of soldering a brass cap over holes in the system of overhead water pipes.  The solder holding the cap would melt at 160 degrees, releasing water and quenching the fire within minutes.
          Once perfected, Henry’s brother George took the idea back to England, marketing the system via a 19th-Century equivalent of an infomercial.  In 1874, George constructed a 20x30 shed and filled the floor with wood shavings and paraffin oil before setting fire to it.  With spectators running away for fear of a conflagration that would certainly destroy their village, the overhead sprinkler system engaged at one minute, twenty seconds.  The fire was completely extinguished with no damage to any of the surrounding buildings.  George traveled from town to town, performing these dramatic demonstrations, proving the benefits of automated fire prevention systems.
          Back in the United States, Frederick Grinnell, as head of the Providence (RI) Steam and Gas Company, perfected the process with a more even water distribution system.  His company was primarily responsible for the installation of over 20,000 sprinkler systems in the textile mills of New England.  As expected, property losses due to fire decreased significantly, yet high-risk cotton mills were still unable to obtain fire insurance.  The formation of a cotton-owners mutual insurance company prompted a commitment to the continued development and implementation of fire prevention systems, giving birth to a new industry.
          The demand for automated sprinkler systems resulted in a flurry of improvements over the next hundred years. Today’s systems are based on Colonel Cosgrove’s idea of a network of pipes with heads at specified intervals installed in ceilings as well as walls.  The plug release has evolved to glass bulbs that burst when the water inside expands when heated by a fire.  Additional improvements have been made with the addition of a Pelton Wheel that spins to distribute the water, and shut-off valves so the system can be turned off once the fire is extinguished.
          While automatic fire sprinklers were developed to limit loss of property in the highly flammable textile factories, their greatest impact would come in saving human life.  Following the catastrophic fires in 1942 at the Coconut Grove Nightclub in Boston, where 492 people lost their lives, and the 1946 catastrophe at the Winecoff Hotel in Atlanta which resulted in 19 deaths, officials looked to the success rates of sprinklers in the industrial sector and evaluated their applicability and adaptability to public buildings. As a result, building codes throughout the United States currently require automated fire sprinkler systems in schools, hospitals, hotels, retirement homes and other buildings where rapid evacuation of occupants is complicated. State and city codes often go further and require them in apartment buildings or, in some cases, private residences.
          The impact of the development of automatic fire sprinklers can be measured in lives and/or property saved.  Consider the facts:

  • ·         There has never been a multiple loss of life from fire of occupants in a building with a properly designed, installed and maintained fire sprinkler system;
  • ·         Average loss for a fire incident in a building protected by fire sprinkler systems was 90% less than ones without;
  • ·        Ninety-two percent of fires were contained by one or two activated sprinkler heads. 
          Automatic sprinkler systems are used more than any other fixed fire protection system.  Over 40 million sprinklers are fitted world-wide each year.  There exists tangible evidence of their success in the defense against the incredibly destructive power of fire.  Thousands of lives and untold millions in property damage were lost prior to the development of automatic fire sprinklers in the 20th century.  The 21st century, which relies on the principles developed in the 1800s, will benefit from great visionaries such as John Care, Colonel Cosgrove, Henry Parmalee and Frederick Grinnell, heroes all. 

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