Risk Management – Fire Sprinklers

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The latest journal of Pest Control Operators of California featured an article by the Jenkins Insurance Group, describing some insurance claims against the pest control industry this past year. Sixty percent involved workmen's compensation. Of the remaining forty percent in general liability claims, at least three large claims involved fire sprinklers, both from general pest control and termite operations. As reported by Jenkins Insurance Group director, Paul Lindsay, “When it comes to property damage claims, Branch 2 is no lightweight…. the topper came from a stumbling technician who, while treating in an attic, broke a water sprinkler line. After about 20 to 30 minutes, the valve was turned off, but not after water coursed through the attic and down the walls. tens of thousands of dollars later, the claim from this seemingly hidden exposure is finally being put to rest… Not to be outdone by Branch 2, the (Branch 3) inspectors broke a couple of attic sprinkler lines…that ran up claim dollars.” One can only begin to imagine the general liability claims due to fire sprinkler related damages across the entire country. I would not be surprised if that number surpassed $100,000,000, but that is only a guess.

Here is minute by minute fire department news coverage of a fire sprinkler break in an apartment complex.

There is so much information on the internet advocating fire sprinklers for the prevention of catastrophic fires and loss of life, that it becomes hard to locate information focused on the negative aspects of fire sprinklers. Most articles that even mention water damage, do so only to rule out that consideration as a “minor disadvantage” when considering the alternative fire damage.

I was not able to find any statistics on the incidence of water damage from fire sprinklers verses structural fire damage. I can’t begin to guess the relative damage of one vs. the other. One thing I am sure of. Water pipes burst much more frequently than structural fires occur. Fire sprinklers may be a necessary evil for property owners, but they are a structural hazard deserving more public education.

As you will see in the videos, the damage from water line breaks can be astronomical. Fire sprinkler regulations can vary from town to town. Recommendations as to shut off procedures for fire sprinklers also varies widely. You will find much more code on the books regulating the installation of commercial fire sprinklers than residential fire sprinklers. Therefore, you can find some very odd arrangements of fire sprinkler lines in residential structures. I highly recommend asking the local fire departments in the localities you service about the best procedures to have in place for working in structures with fire sprinklers. I want you to also seriously consider this recommendation: Don’t touch fire sprinkler shut off switches! Let technicians certified in the pressurizing and depressurizing of fire sprinklers conduct this task. This task has nothing to do with pest control. But, just in case of a flood emergency, do be aware before inspecting or treating any structure where you would find the water shut off.

From a risk management perspective, it may be worth backing away from work in these structures. Every job has its’ risks and for many, the job is worth more than the foreseeable risk. If you choose to take the risk, I highly recommend that you ask your pest control industry legal attorney to construct a waiver for fire sprinkler damage. Simultaneously, train you staff before they enter any structure to be on the lookout for fire sprinklers and fire sprinkler lines. Remember that in most all cases, the lines are under high pressure. Be fair to your customer. Give them the benefit of the information you have so that you take these risks together or back off of them based on mutual understanding.

Enjoy this video of a Target employee who was a bit of a bull in a china shop. (You can fast forward to 10:27:50).

As you can see, it doesn’t take much effort to accidently damage a fire sprinkler head. Think just how easy it must be to accidently crack a fire sprinkler line when you are inspecting an attic! Check this video of an HVAC contractor attempting to work around this attic fire sprinkler pipe. No accident occurs in this video, yet it is extremely instructive for pest control and termite inspectors or any pest control technician accessing an attic.

So as you review the videos presented here, think carefully about the potential damage to your company from these incidents. Yes, it is important for the property owner to be protected from fire. Nevertheless, when you are entering a commercial or residential structure to inspect and protect pest control customers and prospects from pests, they also expect that you will do no harm to their property. So it is just as much your job to avoid any and all water damage.

I’m not sure if this one was from a fire sprinkler, but it was fun to watch.

Consider also the possibility, presented in this video, that you may be entering a situation where the fire sprinkler line has pre-existing internal damage that you will never be aware of, damage that has not yet caused failure of the line, but that may come undone during your presence in the attic due to the weakness within the system.

The videos presented in this post do not even represent what I would classify as sensitive environments. Can you imagine if a break was to occur in a medical laboratory, nursing home or hospital? What would be the damage claim for laboratories, pharmacies, medical examination and surgical room equipment damage, patient transfers, shut down and work stoppage for extended periods?

Foreknowledge is forewarned. Protect your customers and protect your business from the potential impact of fire sprinkler line flooding.

Understand that nothing in this article is a substitute for sound legal advice and professional consultations is the specific trades related to any given task.


7 Responses to Risk Management – Fire Sprinklers

  1. keith says:

    I think the only thing I can say is WOW, thanks for sharing.

  2. Gerry says:

    Hi Keith,

    Thanks for providing your feedback. Even one simple WOW is very encouraging and lets me know that the blog is going in the right direction.


  3. Rick says:

    Another WOW!
    One of those things you don’t really consider when in an attic, except to stay off all lines. I’ll bet the majority of techs in an attic (if not all) have lost their balance one time or another. Scary to think of loosing your balance and stepping on a sprinkler line!

    Good job, Gerrry


  4. Gerry says:

    Well Rick, thank you so much for the kind words! It’s good to get reinforcement that the blog posts are doing some good. (It helps make up for some of the controversy)! Can you imagine? If every pest control company read this post and implemented a policy to avoid fire sprinkler line breaks, we could cut down a huge amount of insurance losses, losses that in the past really hurt my pest control company and losses that I am sure are now making some pest control company owners shed a few tears! We have enough headaches to deal with. We don’t need these kinds of devastating losses that can destroy a years’ work or even the entire company.

    Consider a common G.L. policy in California at $1-2 per $100 of revenue risk. That’s an acceptable amount. But if that rate were to jump to $5-10 per $100 of revenue risk, could that company continue to operate? It makes you wonder if that attic job was worth the money, doesn’t it? Not that we should stop inspecting attics, but it certainly makes you think about increasing your protections, in the form of more defensive legalise, more defense-savvy staff, more client communications, more defensive thought processes relative to taking on job risk. BTW, when it comes to fire sprinklers, there really is no safe spot where you can know for sure without careful inspection that the lines do not run. The periphery of the roofline can be just as fragile as the more central areas, as the fire sprinklers often run up those side walls where you might find bee activity or dead rodents.

    Thanks again for the poke back on this blog.

    More power to ya in 2011.


  5. The fire itself can cause serious damage by itself, but then the fire sprinklers come on and now there’s major water damage too. What a mess.

  6. Gerry says:

    Being experts, I hope you will share more. It’s great to get a linkback, but you can get more business by sharing information on your craft. You have an excellent website and I am sure there in a lot of expert knowledge on water damage that you can share.

  7. click this…

    […]Risk Management – Fire Sprinklers « Hearts Consulting Group, LLC – People and Pest Control Blog[…]…

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