If a building has a working sprinkler system, it should control a fire and prevent serious damage, right? If that is true, why do we continue to see serious fire damage to buildings equipped with working sprinkler systems?
Contrary to what many people believe, all sprinkler systems are not created equal. The design of a sprinkler system must be matched to the type of building it is protecting, and also to the use of that building. In this vein, a manufacturing process utilizing combustible materials requires a more robust sprinkler system than an office space.
This need to match the design of a sprinkler system to the building and its use can become a significant issue when the use of a building changes. When that happens and necessary sprinkler system modifications are not made, dangerous conditions and failures are foreseeable.
Two key differences that may vary between sprinkler systems concern density, i.e. the amount of water that flows from sprinkler heads once activated, and sprinkler head placement. With respect to the latter, sprinkler heads are typically located on ceilings. Installing large equipment or adding structures to a building with ceiling-mounted sprinkler heads can result in areas without sprinkler system coverage. For example, a new mezzanine installed in an industrial space could prevent water from ceiling-mounted sprinkler heads from reaching a fire originating under the mezzanine. In that scenario, a fire under the mezzanine could grow, spread and become too intense for the sprinkler system to extinguish once it escapes the unprotected area.
Stutman Law recently litigated a case involving a change in use of an industrial building that resulted in a dangerous, unprotected space with respect to the building’s preexisting sprinkler system. The owner of the building had leased it to a new tenant in the wax processing business. The tenant constructed a two-story mezzanine and installed large steel wax processing tanks around the mezzanine. Each tank stood on legs 4 to 6 feet tall. A sprinkler contractor who had been performing inspections in the building for years noted the changes during an inspection and contracted to install sprinkler protection under the new mezzanine. The contractor subcontracted design work for the sprinkler system updates to a different entity. Unfortunately, the updates were insufficient.
First, the contractors did not adequately address the change in use in the building. Wax is combustible and was present in large quantities. The building’s preexisting sprinkler system had been designed for a less hazardous use and was not robust enough to safely protect the building given its new use. In other words, the sprinkler system’s density was insufficient for the wax processing operation. Second, the contractor did not account for the new unprotected spaces created beneath the elevated wax processing tanks.
As fate would have it, a fire originated under a wax processing tank in an area the sprinkler system could not reach. By the time the fire escaped the unprotected area and activated the sprinkler system, it was too developed for the inadequate sprinkler system to control.
Stutman Law brought claims against both the original sprinkler contractor and the sprinkler system design firm. Our expert opined that the defendants should have recommended a full survey of the sprinkler system to assess whether it adequately protected the building given the wax processing business located therein. They failed to do so, and the sprinkler system was ineffective and insufficient to control the fire. Stutman Law aggressively litigated the claims, settling before trial subject to a confidentiality clause.