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Environmental Sustainability: The Inherent Environmental Benefits of Fire Sprinklers

Anyone who understands fire-sprinkler systems also understands they’ve had a positive impact on our environment for over 135 years without much credit. CO2 emissions and potable-water consumption are two obvious points, but there’s more it than the obvious.

How much new product is produced to replace burnt structural material and lost commercial operation machinery, process materials and furnishings? What energy is consumed to manufacture the replacements? How much energy is needed to ship and install? What amount of energy is being used to transport workers and tools to rebuild or replace fire-damaged structures?

Burnt building materials should be evaluated for recycling, but most likely will end up in the landfill, since most will be beyond recycling or reuse capabilities. Not just the burnt material is discarded from a structure involved in a fire. The peripheral materials will also need replacement by either code or design of the new part of the structure or by insurance and liability driven issues for the contractor in order to guarantee the new work.

For example, if a roof is damaged by fire and firefighting operations, the roofer isn’t just going to patch a hole. A significant area or possibly the entire roof will be replaced to warrant the work. In many cases involving single- and two-family homes, entire roofs are replaced after a fire due to age or condition. Often exposures have damage and will also produce tons of materials for our landfills.

How much fuel and energy is consumed by fire apparatus operating at a fire scene? How many gallons does your department use annually? According to OSHA, 25% of all hazardous particulate air pollution is from fuel combustion from diesel engines. Not only are greenhouse gases produced, but such toxins as sulfur dioxide, arsenic, acetaldehyde, formaldehyde, benzene, lead, phenols, mercury and manganese as well.

Water used to suppress, control, extinguish and overhaul a fire—does it all just disappear? Some will turn into steam, but most will settle into the aquifer or run off into streams and lakes. This runoff will carry large amounts of toxic substances with it. If you’re in a rural or sparse suburban area, this may not be a concern, though it should be. However, in densely built areas, water quality and water supply is a problem that our water purveyors deal with every day.

What about treating burn injuries? There are tons of medical waste in caring for the 16,000 or so reported burn patients in the United States annually. Medical waste doesn’t go to the landfill, but is classified as a biohazard and incinerated. Incineration takes energy that could be conserved or used elsewhere. Energy is needed to produce the materials, energy is used incinerating the medical waste, and the energy and fuel used transporting burn patients for months or a lifetime of care and rehabilitation could clearly be reduced with more fire-sprinkler protection.

Greenhouse gases are reduced when fires are addressed by fire sprinklers. A 2007 analysis of the fire problem of the Greater Manchester, U.K., area showed 3 million metric tons (3,306,930 U.S. tons) of CO2 released just in that one region of Earth from fires. Fire sprinklers will significantly reduce CO, CO2 and toxic gases by over 90% and reduce water use also by 90%, as shown in FM Global live burn tests. (View the video or download the PDF report.)

Fire sprinkler systems have a positive impact just by their nature. It’s what they don’t allow to happen, along with a multitude of environmental and energy savings, that fire sprinklers don’t presently get credit for in documents such as LEED, the International Green Construction Code and IAPMO Green Code.

Just as fire sprinklers can reduce the negative economic ripple effect of a community after an unwanted fire, they can also downsize the ripples that erode our environment. Early fire control reaches far beyond the structure and the unwanted fire; positive impacts are realized on several energy and environmental issues, while lifestyles are barely disrupted and lives are saved.

It simply comes down to this: the greenest thing we can do is put the fire out.

Dominick G. Kasmauskas, CFPS, is the NFSA associate director of Regional Operations-Northern Division.

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