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NFPA Impact: August 2009

Many, if not most, Canadian communities have no understanding of their needs for fire-fighting flows. I have done a half dozen municipal water-supply education sessions across Canada to date and the overwhelming majority of participants report that they do not look at fire-fighting flows before buildings or subdivisions are approved. The assumption appears to be that others are looking after the fire-service interests.

July 27, 2009
By Sean Tracey

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Many, if not most, Canadian communities have no understanding of their needs for fire-fighting flows. I have done a half dozen municipal water-supply education sessions across Canada to date and the overwhelming majority of participants report that they do not look at fire-fighting flows before buildings or subdivisions are approved. The assumption appears to be that others are looking after the fire-service interests.

My experience is that municipal officials assume that building designers are looking after fire-fighting flows. In my opinion, this is another clear failure of the National Building and Fire Codes to consider public expectations. I also believe that this failure to determine adequacy of fire-fighting flows before construction increases municipal liabilities. This failure further robs the fire service of the opportunity to require sprinklers when the codes otherwise would be silent. If fire-fighting flows can not be met then a building should be sprinklered even if the codes may not require this.

I have previously reported on water-supply problems and the building codes so I will avoid this issue here. I will, however, alert readers to an excellent new resource. In October 2008 the United States Fire Administration (USFA) completed a project with the Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE) Educational & Scientific Foundation in which it studied and evaluated the latest trends and technologies related to municipal water-supply systems to enhance effective fire protection. The USFA and the SFPE produced two reports that are available for download from the USFA website (www.usfa.dhs.gov/fireservice/research/dsn/dsn_waterstudy.shtm ): Volume I – Water Supply Systems Concepts; and Volume 2 – Water Supply Evaluation Methods. These reports are great because they focus on the issue of municipal water supplies and, in my opinion, highlight the inadequacies of water supplies to support modern fire-fighting flow demands.

It is my belief that officials in many Canadian communities assume that because there is a municipal water supply system present there will be adequate fire-fighting flows for any hazards constructed in their communities. No analysis is done on the potential flows, the number of hydrants needed or hydrant locations. This is a recipe for disaster, or at least for civil litigation. If a major fire occurs and a structure is a total loss, insurers may be able to easily claim that fire-fighting flows were inadequate. The community could face a large potential loss from such litigation.

The NFPA 1 Fire Code is clear on the requirements for fire-fighting flow calculations even when municipal water supplies are present. There is no similar requirement in either the national building or fire codes. This, in my opinion, leads to the assumption that there is no need for such calculation. The NFPA fire-flow demands are considerably greater than Canada’s National Building Code and National Fire Code, and durations may be up to four hours as opposed to only 30 minutes. This reflects fireground realities. How happy would your property owners be if you had to stop fighting a fire after only 30 minutes? For single-family dwellings up to 5,000 square feet the NFPA requirement is for a flow of 1,000 US gpm. This too reflects the needs to have hose lines for interior attack, RIT and exposure protection. There is no similar requirement in the Canadian codes. So, what do we do when the flows cannot be met in the community? The guidance is clear. It allows flows to be reduced by 75 per cent if a sprinkler system is present and if acceptable to the authority having jurisdiction, or additional water must be provided on site.

In Canada many insurance companies have been giving credit to homeowners for reduced premiums when there is a fire hydrant within 300 feet of the property. This practice may soon change as insurers realize their error. This practice is acceptable if using the ISO rating system but the ISO system requires a minimum of six-inch lines to feed these hydrants. The same ISO guides call for a reduction in insurance gradings to 25 per cent if only four-inch lines are present. Many Canadian communities are providing only four-inch lines in new subdivisions and putting hydrants on them. These are inadequate for fire-fighting flows, create a false sense of security, and will ultimately result in few or no insurance credits. I suggest that these are a fire-loss liability and a maintenance liability for the city. After all, why test fire flows on a hydrant that is effectively useless?

The fire service needs to have a role in community development and building approval. Fire-fighting flows need to be evaluated for every structure, including single-family homes. We need, as a minimum, six-inch lines in residential areas. The codes also should require fire flows to be determined, as this is what the public expects. If any of these requirements are not met, then the recourse should be to require the sprinklering of the properties as a condition for granting building permits.


Sean Tracey, P.Eng., MIFireE, is the Canadian regional manager of the National Fire Protection Association International and formerly the Canadian Armed Forces fire marshal. Contact him at stracey@nfpa.org


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