Online extra: Well-maintained fire sprinklers are a necessity

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It is a serious challenge facing fire departments around the country - modern building fires are burning hotter, faster and more toxic than they did just 20 years ago.

The use of synthetic materials in buildings and furnishings has grown considerably in the last few decades. If you think of these synthetic petro chemicals as frozen gasoline, it's easier to understand how the proliferation of these chemicals led to major changes in firefighting. This new smoke is more toxic and also more likely to explode into flames, making a successful escape less likely for fleeing civilians.

There are, however, steps that building owners and managers can take to help us save lives and reduce property damage. Fire sprinklers, simply put, do their job efficiently and effectively. They help contain fires and give occupants a better chance of getting out alive. The installation of sprinklers will dramatically reduce damage caused by fire, resulting in lower insurance premiums for both commercial and residential property owners.

A well-maintained and inspected sprinkler system will last for many decades. It was a lesson I learned as a young FDNY lieutenant in the 1980s, when my company received a call for a fire at a commercial building on Third Ave. in the Bronx. The loading dock area was on fire and the building was full of noxious smoke. Because it was after business hours our entry into the building was delayed, which normally would have allowed the fire to grow. We forced multiple locks and eventually extinguished the still smoldering fire.

Because there were no maintenance people working at the time, a firefighter replaced the sprinkler head after we brought the fire under control. As he climbed down the ladder, he remarked that the date on the sprinkler head was 1916.

This sprinkler waited diligently on its post for 70 years to do its job. And when the time finally came, this 70-year old piece of life-saving hardware wound up saving the building. As a firefighting professional for more than three decades, I find it baffling that fire sprinklers are not required in all buildings, by law.

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