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Montana firefighters demonstrate impact of fire sprinkler systems

Posted at 5:41 PM, Feb 24, 2023
and last updated 2023-02-24 19:41:00-05

HELENA — Friday at the State Capitol, Montana firefighters provided a very visual demonstration of what can happen if buildings do or don’t have fire sprinklers in place.

“We like to say fire sprinklers buy time, and time buys life,” said Shane Ray, president of the National Fire Sprinkler Association.

NFSA and the Montana Fire Alliance brought in a side-by-side live burn trailer. It features two rooms, each built with the same materials and filled with the same furnishings – one with a sprinkler and one without. They then started small fires to show what would happen next.

Capitol Fire Demonstration

After about a minute, the sprinkler in the first room kicked into action.

“You’re going to see that one sprinkler head is essentially going to put that fire out,” said Dustin Tetrault, a deputy fire chief with the Big Sky Fire Department, who led the demonstration.

Capitol Fire Demonstration

Advocates of sprinkler systems say they can keep the fire smaller, giving people and pets more time to get out and firefighters more time to arrive.

In this case, the first room showed burn damage on some of the furniture and a window covering, and scorch marks on one of the walls.

“That’s what we call ‘damaged,’” said Ray. “You’re about to see ‘destroyed.’”

In the room without sprinklers, everything was fully engulfed in flames within about four minutes. Tetrault said it reached “flashover” – a point at which an enclosed space heats up so much that all exposed flammable materials start to burn immediately.

“Nothing survives flashover,” he said.

Capitol Fire Demonstration

The second room showed significant damage to all the furniture and to the drywall on the walls. Even a protective piece of plastic at the front of the room melted.

Firefighters say house fires tend to grow faster now, partly because more furniture is made from synthetic materials, which burn much faster than older materials.

“It used to be we had about 25 minutes before a building went to flashover,” Tetrault said. “Now we’ve only got about three to five minutes for that building to flash over.”

Tetrault said the average fire loss in a home that has a sprinkler system is more than 90% lower than in one without it.

Capitol Fire Demonstration

Ray said advocates are asking lawmakers to keep safety for the public and firefighters in mind during this year’s legislative session.

“Our whole effort here today is to educate and advocate for a fire-safe Montana,” he said.

The trailer used for this demonstration is hosted by the Bozeman Fire Department. Firefighters say it's unusual for them to do a demonstration like this in the winter, because it's much harder to get all the systems to work when the temperature is far below freezing.