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Hinsdale Fire Department Transforms Home for Fire Sprinkler Demonstration

Paul Valentine, senior engineer for Nexus Engineering, narrates the fire sprinkler demonstration in a Hinsdale home.

On May 17, the Hinsdale Fire Department hosted a public demonstration that displayed the effectiveness of fire sprinklers in battling a staged interior fire in an actual home in Hinsdale.

With the vacant house scheduled for demolition to make way for a new house, the new owner of the property, Donald Mershon, offered the old house to the fire department for firefighter training as well as the fire sprinkler demonstration. As a principal engineer for Nexus Engineering, a fire protection engineering firm in Oak Brook, Mershon realized the house’s potential as an educational opportunity for firefighters and the community.

“Our family wanted to do something productive for the community and society in general.  So rather than simply demolish the structure, we decided that we could perhaps help the fire service and gain valuable insight into the placement of sprinklers in residential occupancies. Therefore, we decided to offer the use of the structure to the fire service and sprinkler industry,” states Mershon.

Executed under the strict guidelines set forth by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), and in compliance with Environment Protection Agency standards, the controlled demonstration took place in the home’s large sunroom, which was split by a wall to simulate two similarly furnished rooms within the home.

“We have conducted side-by-side fire demonstrations in simulated burn cells in the past, but this is the first time we’ve used an actual residential structure for such a demonstration,” notes Hinsdale Fire Chief Mike Kelly. “It’s a more realistic situation when we are able to work with unique ceiling heights and slopes, as would be the case in many homes.”

The fires were set in each room’s wastebasket and quickly grew to the curtains and couches in each room. Each room’s smoke detector sounded within the first 30 seconds as smoke billowed to the ceiling, but in the sprinklered room, the 155° Fahrenheit-rated fire sprinkler activated approximately 40 seconds after the fire began, controlling the fire and knocking it down to its area of origin within one minute and 15 seconds. At the two-minute mark, the fire in the sprinklered room had been extinguished.

Firefighters stand by as an unsprinklered room turns to flashover at a fire sprinkler demonstration in Hinsdale.

The same results could not be said for the unsprinklered room. Within 50 seconds, the ceiling temperature had reached 200°F, then quickly jumping to 320°F at the one-minute mark when the smoke alarm melted and was no longer audible. The fire quickly spread across the couch in the room. By the two-minute mark, the mark at which the sprinklered fire was extinguished, the fire in the unsprinklered room continued to rage at a ceiling temperature of 830°F. At two-and-a-half minutes, the fire blazed at 1,200°F and reached flashover, the point at which the room becomes so hot that everything in the room ignites. Flames melted through the Plexiglas windows and reached up toward the soffits on the outside of the house.

“It’s important to note that the house’s construction was not the cause of the fire spreading so quickly, but rather ordinary home furnishings such as the couch,” says Paul Valentine, narrator for the demonstration and senior engineer for Nexus Engineering. “Due to the construction of today’s modern furnishings, homes now burn quicker and release more toxic smoke than ever before, making fires much more deadly than in the past.”

Ready to combat the flames and smoke, standby firefighters from Hinsdale, Clarendon Hills and Oak Brook stepped in with their hoses to douse the fire before it could grow any further. But already the tremendous difference between the two demonstrations was very clear to onlookers. Many expressed awe and amazement at how quickly a fire could become deadly when fire sprinklers were not present.

Personnel from neighboring fire departments also were in attendance from Itasca, Orland Park, Lombard, Western Springs, and LaGrange Park, along with members of the fire protection industry.

Representatives of Montreux Custom Homes, the company hired to build the new home on the property, were impressed by the impact of the fire sprinkler demonstration. Jim Limparis, construction supervisor for Montreux, says the event further convinced him that fire sprinklers should be included as part of his future custom home projects.

NIFSAB Executive Director Tom Lia (left) consults Hinsdale firefighters as community members view the fire sprinkler demonstration.

Northern Illinois Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board (NIFSAB) Executive Director Tom Lia has conducted a multitude of similar fire sprinkler demonstrations, He believes that performing such demonstrations in homes scheduled to be demolished are enormous opportunities for fire departments nationwide to educate the public about the danger of fires and the need for residential fire sprinklers.

“To help educate firefighters and elected officials about the model codes set forth by the International Code Council and NFPA, every fire department should include this public education demonstration in the training houses they obtain,” says Lia. “When people are able to view the rapid response of residential fire sprinklers in comparison with the significant speed at which fires grow into flashover without the presence of fire sprinklers, it’s much easier for them to understand and appreciate why the fire service and building professionals have voted to include fire sprinklers in model residential codes.”

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