Fire Prevention 52: Fire Sprinklers for the Buildings You Want to Keep

By Brian Johnson, Structural Fire Prevention Manager

A fire sprinkler is designed to disperse the water in an effective pattern that will quickly douse a fire.

Water fire sprinkler

Fire Sprinklers Save Lives + Buildings

Fire sprinklers were directly responsible for saving the Bryce Canyon Lodge, one of the last Gilbert Stanley Underwood lodges in the Grand Circle; as well as The Wayside, a National Historic Landmark, and the home to famous authors Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott, and Margaret Sidney.

When sprinklers are correctly designed, installed, and maintained, very few fires get beyond the beginning (incipient) phase. Sprinklers allow people in the building time to get out safely, and cause very little damage to the building’s contents.

As a young fire inspector learning about fire codes and reviewing plans for new construction, I asked my supervisor how we would know which buildings get fire sprinklers. She facetiously said, "We only put them in the buildings we want to keep." They just work! They save lives. They save buildings. And they save the really cool stuff we have in many of our buildings.

Fire Info for You

Facilities Managers
Every time a new building is planned or an existing building is altered, consult with your regional structural fire manager about required fire protection systems. Including code-required fire protection systems in a building alteration can increase the project's overall competitiveness for funding. Using the Work Order type "Legislatively Mandated Fire Code" and giving it a risk assessment code (RAC) of 3 or higher will go a long way to getting this project in a high scoring band. Contact your regional structural fire manager or Brian Johnson, national structural fire prevention manager, with questions.

Take Action

To make sure fire sprinklers work best, follow these tips:

  1. Remove stored and stacked items away from sprinkler heads. They cannot effectively disperse water when blocked.
  2. Never hang anything from a sprinkler head.
  3. Facility managers: Maintain your building's fire protection systems.

NPS Fire Facts

How Sprinklers Work
Fire sprinklers are simple systems. Pipes coming from a municipal water supply or other source transport water into a series of valves and pipes in a building. The water is held back by a sprinkler head.

Like a lawn sprinkler, a fire sprinkler is designed to disperse the water in an effective pattern that will quickly douse a fire. But unlike a lawn sprinkler, a fire sprinkler will disperse no water until it is hot enough. Usually melting a link or breaking a glass bulb allows the water to escape. Rather than what we see on TV, only the sprinkler head that receives heat activates. Most fires are contained by only one or two sprinklers, which dramatically reduces the amount of damage due to water.

Watch this short video that demonstrates the beneficial effect that a single fire sprinkler has on a room on fire.

Last updated: October 20, 2016