Automatic sprinkler systems are often considered the most significant component of a building fire protection strategy. When properly designed, installed and maintained, an automatic sprinkler system can control a fire and significantly reduce deaths, injuries and property damage. However, sprinkler systems have their limitations, and their performance can be affected by factors not linked to the initial design or installation of the sprinkler system. This article explores automatic sprinkler system failure data to identify and discuss causes of unsatisfactory sprinkler performance.

Historical fire losses provide experiences that shape current fire protection design methodologies, design criteria and defense strategies. Significant lessons learned have been extracted from post-fire investigations of major losses of life and/or property despite protection by an automatic sprinkler system. These post-fire loss investigations revealed not only the cause of the fires but causes associated with unsatisfactory sprinkler system performance. Unsatisfactory performance includes failure to operate, as well as ineffectiveness to control a fire and limit damages to life and property.

Generally, sprinkler systems are considered reliable and effective when properly designed, installed and maintained. Research shows that in most cases, when sprinklers are functional, they are successful in containing a fire.

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