The effects of a blaze in a large building or facility go beyond just safety and structural damage, and can be ruinous – to the local infrastructure, economy and environment. But installing sprinkler protection could take businesses out of the line of fi re, says FM Global’s Brendan MacGrath

At around 11pm on a Saturday night in February 2005, a small fi re started in a room on the 21st story of the Torre Windsor high-rise offi ce building in downtown Madrid, Spain.

Despite the efforts of the permanent security staff and the professional fi re brigade – which used 1.6 million gallons (six million litres) of water to prevent the blaze from spreading to adjacent neighbouring properties—the 32-story, 100-metre-high building became engulfed in fl ames; by morning it had partially collapsed.

Fearing further collapse, the city set up a 500 metre exclusion zone around the building, forcing nearby businesses to shut. This affected some 30,000 workers. At the same time, many roads and railways feeding this important business district were shut down.

And, because of the building’s central location, its demolition had to be a gradual dismantling – a process that led to signifi cant disruption in the area for the next six months.

The estimated cost of the fi re, including insured damages to third parties, approached €300m. More diffi cult to measure was the damage this highly publicised catastrophe had on Madrid’s image as the business capital of Spain’s economy, and as an important tourist destination – especially at a time when it was considered a front-running contender to host the 2012 Olympics.

A few years earlier, also in Madrid, on New Year’s Day 2002, a short circuit from an operating portable electrical heater started a fi re in a seven-story offi ce building. But unlike the Torre Windsor, this facility was fi tted with a sprinkler system. Three sprinkler heads operated, successfully controlling and ultimately extinguishing the fi re by the time the public fi re brigade, notifi ed by the water fl ow alarm, arrived.

An estimated 26,000 litres of sprinkler water was applied; 230 times less than that consumed by hose streams during the Torre Windsor offi ce fi re. The estimated total loss cost was just €175,000. Perhaps most important, the building’s staff returned to work the following day, and there was no signifi cant interruption to those in the immediate area.

Knock-on effects

There are countless examples of fi res in facilities in Europe and around the globe that have caused widespread disruption and ruin, and the wider effects can be disasterous to communities.

In Denmark, for example, two separate fi res destroyed two large pork-product processing facilities.

During the time it took for demolition, rebuilding and repairs to be completed, more than 1,300 employees were forced to look for work elsewhere – not to mention the impact to the staff working at those companies supplying raw materials and services to the facilities – creating a sense of uncertainty that put a strain on the local economy beyond the obvious unemployment costs.

In addition, the interim and sometimes permanent closure of a facility will often cause a company to relocate jobs to another country with lower costs.

Such was the fate of 200 jobs following a major fi re at an electrical manufacturing plant in the UK: the plant closed and the operations were transferred to a facility in Greece. Indeed, fi re affects the economy not just at the local level, but at the national level as well. In Treviso, Italy, a domestic appliance manufacturing facility with a staff of 800 suffered a catastrophic fi re.

With thick black smoke emanating from the plant, nearby schools were evacuated and closed, while businesses and residences in the surrounding urban area were ordered to keep their windows closed.

The toll on the community was so great that the manufacturing company involved was questioned by the authorities on whether it took the necessary measures to prevent this event and its consequences.

Each of the above catastrophes has one thing in common: the buildings involved were not fi tted with an automatic fi re sprinkler system. Had an adequately designed, installed and maintained system been provided, the outcome and overall impact would almost certainly have been different.

Contrast the above examples of uncontrolled fi re with what happened in France one Friday evening in August 2007. Following an argument with a few colleagues, a disgruntled employee at an 8,000 sq metre spare parts warehouse set fi re to some of the facility’s cartoned goods, which were in high-rack storage. Four sprinkler heads positioned above the fi re operated promptly, limiting damage to one bay of the rack. All employees safely evacuated the building, and the fi re brigade, upon its arrival, quickly extinguished what was essentially the size of a still incipient fi re. There was no reported impact to the environment, and operations at the facility resumed as usual the following Monday.

The tip of the iceberg

While the property insurance costs of major fi re events are readily quantifi able, their total economic cost and broader impact on society – on the community, on the environment, on the safety of building occupants and emergency services – are not. Indeed, the property and business interruption loss costs represent only the tip of the iceberg; much of the total impact and cost of fi re to society remain largely hidden from view.

Observed from this perspective, the sprinkler is a device for the protection not only of properties and their assets, but also of people, their livelihoods, the environment, the local community, the economy – of sustainability in general.

Given both the impact of fi re on today’s society – estimated by several studies at the macro-economic level to be between 1% and 2% of a country’s gross