A modern house or office fire can reach 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit in less than three minutes, according to the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
But even as the increased use of synthetics and petroleum-based compounds in modern furnishings has led to hotter, more dangerous fires, the number of fire deaths in New York City has steadily declined.
Forty years ago this month, New York City enacted Local Law 5, which required all buildings over 100 feet be equipped with an automatic sprinkler system. Other laws have followed, and today sprinkler systems are required in all high-rise office buildings, all new multi-family buildings of over three units, and many other commercial buildings.
“They’re all written in blood,” said veteran sprinkler technician Tim Bowe, president of ABCO Peerless Sprinkler Corp.. “Every time someone dies in a fire, they re-evaluate the fire ordinances.”
In March 1999, New York City enacted Local Law 10, which mandated that all newly constructed multifamily dwellings with three or more units must be fully protected by fire sprinklers — a response to the deaths of four people in a fire in December of 1998 at 124 West 60th Street.
And after the tragic death of three firefighters on Father’s Day 2001, Local Law 26 was enacted to require automatic fire sprinklers in mercantile occupancies where anything flammable or combustible is stored below grade.
Sprinklers may never be hip, and most people who depend on them to save their lives don’t know where they came from or how they work.
But for some people, they’re fascinating.
“If you were in a department store at the Coach counter, and a fire broke out at the Lancôme counter and the sprinkler went off, would you get wet?” Bowe asked a reporter, who knows a trick question when she hears one.
The answer was no: modern sprinklers are equipped with sensitive heat detectors that provide an efficient, localized dousing.
That thing that you see in the movies, where a fire alarm goes off and all the sprinklers in a building start to spray? That doesn’t really happen.
Which is just as well. Fire sprinklers can make quite a mess.
They move between 20 and 60 gallons of water each minute, compared to about five gallons per minute in a typical bathtub, according to Bowe, who represents the third of four generations of his family to work at his company, and is also a board member of the Mechanical Contractors Association.
New York is not the only city that has learned the hard way the value of fire safety ordinances. In 1991, three Philadelphia firefighters were killed and another 24 injured fighting a high-rise fire at the Meridian Bank Building in downtown Philly. The building burned until the fire reached floors that had been retrofitted with sprinklers.
“For 19 hours, the Philadelphia Fire Department fought this fire until 10 automatic sprinkler heads finally extinguished it,” the Firefighting publication Fire Engineering noted years later.
Retrofitting a building with a sprinkler system costs approximately $6 or $7 per square foot. But in some situations, it could be priceless.
As the bumper sticker on Bowe’s truck colorfully notes: “Lawn sprinklers save you grass; fire sprinklers save your a–.”