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Mark Sornsin, Published December 21 2013

Letter: Water damage is serious, but alternative is worse

I read with interest the story about the fire on the 15th floor of the Fargo High Rise (Forum, Dec. 18). The story seemed to over-emphasize the resulting water damage from the activation of the sprinkler system.

While it is true that water damage that affects 15 floors of a building is significant, one must ask what the alternative would have been had there been no automatic sprinkler protection. We would like to think that everyone would have been evacuated and the fire contained by the firefighters to the apartment of origin; but we have no way of knowing that.

In reality, it takes time to get firefighters to the 15th floor of a building. It is quite possible the room where the fire started could have flashed-over, leading to extensive fire, heat and smoke damage before firefighters could control the flames.

Assuming the fire could be contained to the one apartment, there would still be significant smoke damage to apartments on that floor, possibly extending to residences above; and the water damage would be far worse than what was seen in this incident.

Ask yourself how much water must be applied using hand-held hose lines to a fire that has been burning out of control for several minutes. The fire in this case was extinguished by the activation of one or two sprinklers, each having an outlet about a half-inch in diameter. (The story did not note how many sprinklers operated, but in this scenario it is highly unlikely more than one or two operated.) This flow is minor compared to that from the 1½-inch (or larger) hose lines used by the firefighters.

These sprinklers also activated early in the fire’s development, long before any firefighter could have arrived on scene, thus minimizing the fire and smoke damage. It is remarkable to me that enough water flowed to affect the 15 floors below; I have to wonder if there was a delay in shutting off the water to the sprinkler system.

Regardless, this water damage combined with the minor fire and smoke damage to the apartment was but a tiny fraction of the property damage that would have occurred were there no fire sprinkler system in place; not to mention the potential injuries or loss of life due to the fire and smoke.

We should all be thankful when automatic sprinklers control fires because the ensuing damage without them will always be far greater. Fire sprinkler systems save lives and property. This is true in a high-rise, a commercial or industrial facility, as well as within a single-family home.

Sornsin, P.E., is a registered Fire Protection Engineer with 22 years of experience with the design of fire suppression systems. He is a Fargo native and has been working as a consulting engineer in Fargo since 2001.