The Facts Concerning Apartment Fires and Sprinkler Location of Fires in Apartments


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The Facts Concerning Apartment Fires and Sprinkler

Location of Fires in Apartments

  • The majority of the fires in residential properties start in: the kitchen or cooking area (39%); confined cooking fire (13%); bedroom (11%); living room, family room, lounge or den (5%), areas where sprinkler protection is provided with NFPA 13 and 13R sprinkler systems.

  • Less than 2% of the fires in apartment buildings start in the attic or ceiling and ceiling floor space not protected by an NFPA 13R sprinkler system.

NFPA 13R Sprinkler Standard

  • The statement in the NFPA 13R sprinkler standard that the NFPA 13R sprinkler system is not designed for property protection is misinterpreted by many. The system is not designed for high hazard property protection, but it does, because of the quick response sprinkler heads, provide an increase in property protection for residential occupancies. Property loss in sprinklered residential occupancies is about 42% less than the property loss in non-sprinklered properties.

  • The IBC requirement for sprinklers on combustible balconies and decks was placed in the code in response to firefighter concerns about fires starting on balconies/decks and spreading to the attic. The requirement is not included in either NFPA 13 or 13R.


  • R occupancies have more compartmentalization than other occupancies because of the 1-hour requirement for corridors and separation between individual units (dwelling/sleeping).
  • The corridor separation can be reduced to ½-hour with the installation of a NFPA 13 or 13R sprinkler system. The unit separation can be reduced to ½-hour with the installation of a NFPA 13 sprinkler system, both of which are unlikely during actual construction due to other code requirements and minimum construction practices.

Design Options (Trade-offs)

  • Design options with a NFPA 13R sprinkler system are only permitted if sprinklers are present in the area affected and when the sprinklers are installed in these areas they would be designed in accordance with a NFPA 13 system.

  • The sprinkler area increase permitted with the installation of a NFPA 13 sprinkler system is not permitted with a NFPA 13R sprinkler system.

  • The overall building area permitted with a NFPA 13 sprinkler system of 4 times that allowed per floor is not an increase per floor but a means to establish the overall building size with the extra story. It limits the building footprint to that permitted in a building without sprinklers.

Sprinklers Effectiveness

  • NFPA reports that there have been no firefighter or civilians deaths in apartments for the past 12 years.

  • Operation Live Safety from data collected over several years on NFPA 13R sprinkler systems reported that there were no losses of life in buildings protected with NFPA 13R sprinkler systems.

  • NFPA has no record of a fire killing more than two people in a completely sprinklered public assembly, educational, institutional, or residential building where the sprinkler system was properly operating.

  • The performance reliability of 96-97% for sprinklers in apartments is the best of any occupancy.

  • In fires with sprinklers present, the chances of dying in a fire are reduced by one-half to three-fourths and the average property loss is cut by one-half to two-thirds.
  • The death rate in buildings with automatic suppression of 2.2/1000 is one-quarter of the 9.9/1000 death rate for buildings without suppression.

  • In wet pipe systems, which are typically used in apartments, 67% of the fires are controlled by the activation of a single sprinkler head and the single-head activation controls 95% of the fires.

  • 97% of the fires in sprinklered buildings are confined to the fire-rated compartment of origin.

  • 69% of the fires in sprinklered buildings are confined to the object of origin.

Sprinklers vs. Passive Design

  • According to NFPA, the essential factors for life safety beyond sprinkler protection are adherence to code provisions for number of occupants, control of heat sources, flammability of furnishings, and availability and capacity of exits.

  • NFPA does not include passive design as an essential factor for life safety.

  • Sprinklers systems with an overall effectiveness of 93% outperform passive protection systems, which, although the data is limited, are considered by some to be 69-81% effective due to the probability that an fire separation will be damaged or an opening (door) in a fire wall will be blocked in the open position.

Firefighter Fatalities

  • There has not been a firefighter fatality in a sprinklered apartment building for the past 12 years.
  • The number of firefighter fatalities has been declining annually over the years from a high of 173 in 1978. The trend has continued with the implementation of the IBC with deaths in 2005 of 87, one of the lowest on record (75 in 1992 and 79 in 1993). Of the 87 deaths, 25 were at the scene of the fire. Of the 25 deaths at the scene of the fire, 1 was reported as a result of crushing, 11 – sudden cardiac death, 5 – asphyxiation, 4 – internal trauma, 2 – electrocution, 1 – burns, and 1 – stroke.

Civilian Fatalities in Sprinklered Apartments

  • There has not been a civilian fatality in a sprinklered apartment building for the past 12 years.

  • With 97% of the fires in apartments with suppression (a requirement for all R-2 occupancies under the IBC) being confined to the compartment of origin, 95% of the fires being controlled by the activation of a single sprinkler head, and a 96-97% performance reliability, it is unlikely that many fires in apartments actually get to the structural system resulting in structural collapse.

Proposal Justification

  • Fire data provided in the justification based on all residential occupancies is completely without merit in the discussion of deaths in apartment occupancies because it includes data on all residential occupancies, including single-family dwellings and apartments without sprinkler protection. An analysis to support changes in the IBC, which requires all apartments to be sprinklered, should include fire data, as provided above, related to fires in sprinklered apartment buildings. The data provided above clearly shows that the provisions in the legacy codes and now the IBC do provide for safe apartment buildings and the trend of reduction in the number of fires, and the number of deaths in apartment structures started in the legacy codes has continued with the IBC.

  • Although the IBC does allow some reduction in passive systems with the installation of a fire suppression system, the requirement (passive) that each apartment be a separate compartment is proving to be of major benefit for saving lives and property when combined with sprinkler protection because 97% of the fires are contained within the compartment of origin.

  • The statement in the justification that the IBC allows construction of taller, larger Group R-2 occupancies with greatly reduced levels of passive fire protection and even larger buildings based on just active protection is misleading at best. 87.6% of the apartments built in the U.S. are four or fewer stories in height and under the IBC would be constructed with a NFPA 13R sprinkler system. These buildings do get an extra story and 20 feet in height to accommodate the fourth story, and they get the extra area permitted due to building separation. They do not get the extra area permitted with the sprinkler increase, which is limited to buildings with NFPA 13 sprinkler systems. In a review of the fire data on apartments, it becomes very clear that the size of the building (height or area) has nothing to do with the safety of the occupants. The proponent clearly does not understand the provisions of Section 506.4 of the IBC, which they interpret as allowing greater area. The section, in fact, sets a maximum size for each building, limiting in the case of NFPA 13R sprinkler systems, which were designed for buildings up to four stories in height to four times the area permitted for a single floor.

  • The proponent has not provided any data showing that a problem exists with current height and area provisions of the IBC. The proposal is based on this is the way we have done it in the past. In contrast, I believe the IBC, based on the data provided above, does have balanced fire protection, which includes active and passive systems. The R occupancies, unlike many other occupancies, requires a separation between each individual occupancy. What it does not have is the expanded passive system promoted by those supporting passive fire protection. Without a question, sprinklers are the most important part of any fire protection system, and according to the fire data provided by NFPA and others, is working very well. In fact, the number of fires, number of civilian deaths, and the amount of damage from fires continues to decline. NFPA data showing that there have been no firefighter or civilian deaths in apartments for the past 12 years demonstrates the effectiveness of the current IBC code provisions.

  • The height and area provisions in the IBC were developed after extensive review of the three legacy codes and accepted because there was no data to show that the height and area limitations were a major issue in controlling fires.

Statements in Justification

  • Justification Statement: A firefighter is more likely to die in a traffic accident on the way to a fire than crushed by a structural collapse caused by that fire.

  • Response: The statement is important, but it has nothing to do with the reason supporting the need for reduced building heights and area. Based on the 2005 NFPA data for apartments, 69% of the fires are confined to the object of origin, 89% to the area of origin, 95% to the room of origin, and 97% to the fire-rated compartment of origin. There is little question that sprinklers control the fire in apartments and thus there is little chance of the fire spreading into the structural system and causing structural collapse.

  • Justification Statement: In reducing and modifying the well-tested requirements of the legacy codes, the IBC proceeded from what we know to be safe to something unproven.

  • Response: It is agreed that not all of the provisions in the IBC were included in all of the legacy codes, but the provisions in the IBC are not unproven or an experiment in safety. In studying the basis for the height and area requirements during the development of the IBC, it became quite clear that there was basically no difference in the fire experiences in any of the areas covered by any one of the specific legacy codes. Many of the sprinkler provisions and design options included in the IBC were already being permitted under the National Building Code published by BOCA, and there was no data to show that the area covered by BOCA code had any different fire record than the areas covered by the Uniform Building Code or Southern Standard Building Code. Although the physical area of coverage by the UBC was greater, for apartments there is no significant difference in the number of units covered by BOCA vs. UBC.


NFPA Report – U.S. Experience with Sprinklers and Other Fire Extinguishing Equipment, August 2005

NFPA Report – Selections from U.S. Fires in Selected Occupancies – Homes, March 2006

Operation Life Safety – Residential Sprinkler Activations Annual Report, July 31, 1995


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