You may have seen this recent fire on the network news:

Fire Rips Through Overland Park Apartment Complex, Damaging 22 Homes

According to media accounts, this was a gigantic wood frame construction project that was destroyed, along with damage to 22 homes in the area. In the week prior to this, there was a similar fire (see photo above) at a large frame apartment building in Raleigh, NC.

Where I live, there is an explosion of new residential construction of apartments and condos. Many of them, including some in congested commercial areas are almost entirely frame construction, including structural features. I’m talking about HUGE 3+ story buildings with probably over 100 units. For example, here is a 5-story wood frame apartment complex a few miles from where I live:

Of course, they are all sprinklered, as required by fire codes, and hopefully the government, along with their insurer(s), are making sure that the sprinkler systems were properly designed and installed and that they will be properly maintained, although this won’t matter much (as in the case of the fire above) until the project is completed and the sprinkler systems are activated.

Once that happens, if a single system is shut off, deficient, or otherwise inoperable in accordance with design requirements, then the systems that are OK can be easily overpowered by a fire when large numbers of sprinklers open and water pressure drops below the level required for proper operation of the sprinkler heads.

Here is an article I wrote quite a while ago, including a downloadable PDF:

Sprinkers…Two Thumbs Up!”  (article access requires a member login)

It’s been years since I examined the statistics but back in the 1980s, according to the NFPA, there had never been a death in a fully sprinklered building that was properly designed, installed and maintained with the exception of explosions that took out everything. In my ISO inspector days, it was common to find sprinkler systems that were not properly maintained. We once were threatened with a lawsuit by a landlord that owned much of a block in downtown Nashville for rating his property nonsprinklered. It had, as I recall, 7 sprinkler systems, only one of them being operable, and that system had severe internal corrosion. The gate valve to one system had been shut off, based on the corrosion and the inability to open it, for many years.

Allowing large, sprinklered FRAME residential occupancy buildings is, I believe, a mistake because they may not be properly maintained by qualified personnel (not the janitorial staff or resident handyman). In addition, you’ll have residents or contractors that will paint over sprinkler heads, hang stuff on them, etc. And the insurer had better make darned sure the system is properly designed.

Imagine the liability exposure for a tenant or contractor who negligently starts a fire that destroys the entire structure, damages surrounding property, and perhaps causes injury or death to multiple residents. Also, consider, from a property standpoint, that there could be a complete lack of coverage under a Protective Safeguards endorsement if the system is not property maintained, as happened in this court case.

It’s a personal opinion, but I believe that permitting the construction of large, sprinklered FRAME residential multi-occupancy buildings is a disaster waiting to happen. And, if you’re a carrier or agent involved in insuring such properties or the tenants residing there or contractors working there, be wary.

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Bill Wilson

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One of the premier insurance educators in America on form, coverage, and technical issues; Founder and director of the Big “I” Virtual University; Retired Assoc. VP of Education and Research from Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America. Reprint Request Information