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What can happen when sprinklers meet human error?


The Liberty Mutual study documented fires in industrial occupancies where sprinklers were present and should have operated, or perhaps even did operate, but were shut off either before the fire event or prematurely during the fire. These actions, known as impairments, are almost always the result of human error.


In one instance, an impairment occurred at a warehouse where, ironically, sprinkler contractors were making improvements to the system. At closing time, they lacked a necessary part to recharge the system. Instead of getting the part and completing the recharging process, they left the system off without notifying anyone and went home. A fire occurred that night. What may have been estimated damage between R3.4 million and R6.9 million amounted to many multiples of that.


Another example involved a fire in a typical New England textile mill. The fire seemed to exceed what would normally be expected in a sprinklered building. After the fire, a fire protection engineer visited the location and found several sprinkler control valves in the closed position, including the one controlling sprinklers in the fire area. It turns out they were shut off during the fire to conserve water escaping through some damaged pipe. Although the consequences of this action were not fully investigated, it has to be at least assumed that sprinklers in the fire area were shut off during the fire as well. Again, what may have been fire damage of around

R4.1 million was many multiples of that.


Finally, one of the most unusual and well-documented cases of sprinkler impairment occurred in Roseville, California, in 2010. Although it was in a retail location, this scenario could just as easily have happened in a large, complex industrial facility. The details were taken from the official City of Roseville loss report.


As the 130 000m2 Westfield Galleria at Roseville Mall, an important local employer, geared up for holiday shopping, a person believed to be carrying a gun barricaded himself in the storage room of a video game store on the second floor and started a fire. A standoff ensued, the mall was evacuated and a suspect was apprehended.


Emergency responders determined that sprinklers in that area of the mall were operating. But the fire continued to grow in intensity and spread to adjacent stores until a partial roof collapse led to the withdrawal of all emergency personnel. The fire entered a phase of drastic escalation and fighting it became an external effort.


In the aftermath, the central question was how the fire could have grown so large when sprinklers should have contained it. An investigation revealed that, unbeknownst to authorities at the time, the sprinklers had actually been shut off shortly after responders arrived at the scene. They did not discover this for well over an hour, when fire department personnel overheard a Westfield maintenance employee talking about having been told by police to shut off one of the sprinkler valves. Upon hearing this, the fire department ordered him to reopen the valve, which was done at about 71 minutes after it had been shut — plenty of time for the fire to intensify and spread. In the final investigation it appeared that a delivery service driver relayed a “shut the valve” message from police to the maintenance employee.


The fire was extinguished by the next day, but the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) did not allow the mall to reopen until days later. According to ATF, the fire destroyed 20 stores and resulted in an estimated R761 million in damage.

(source: internet, NFPA)


What Is Required?


There are two aspects to the Impairment process:


  1. The management procedures that you, as a company, put in place whenever a fire protection system is taken out of service.


  1. Notification to Compendium Insurance Brokers whenever a system (as defined below) is taken out of service for in excess of 12 hours. Impairments less than 12 hours (e.g. for planned routine maintenance) still require management but formal notification to Compendium Insurance Brokers is not required (unless expressly stated otherwise).


The impairment may be as a result of routine maintenance, system modification, equipment malfunction, accidental damage or following an actual fire incident.


The impairment permit (Part 2) should be used to manage ALL impairments internally. The form only need be sent to Compendium Insurance Brokers when the impairment will be in excess of 12 hours.


Notification of impairments: (Request a copy from RMS)


  1. Notification of an impairment is to be made by completing Part 2 (The Permit)
  2. Impairments to be notified to Compendium Insurance Brokers as soon as practical by completing Part A of the permit. This is to be emailed to your service team at Compendium Insurance Brokers as listed on the Impairment Permit
  3. An Account Manager will acknowledge the impairment notification by return email and make comment / observation if appropriate and notify your Insurers.
  4. On restoration of the fire protection system, part B of the permit form is to be completed and emailed back to your Service Team.
  5. An Account manager will acknowledge the restoration of the fire protection system



Source: Risk Management Solutions
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