Good Old Days-Good Old Boy Fire Protection

By James E. Art


The story you are about to read is true; the names have been omitted to protect the innocent, (and some people who should have known better!)

Also, the Statute of Limitations has probably expired.

My name is James Art. I’m a Fire Protection Engineer.

This takes place in the mid ‘70’s. (I’m not old - I’m experienced!)

I came from California to evaluate an old downtown high rise office building in a large city in a very large southern central border state. The building was unusual: Originally it was built as a three story building, with a tall “monumental” first floor, like a bank building. Then two more stories added, and later another five, making it a total of about 10 stories tall.

Just the facts, ma’am:

The owner was a large insurance company, which in those days meant huge amounts of paper files sideways on long open shelves, like some medical practices. I was concerned to see that the fire doors to the stairs had been blocked open, in this mostly unsprinklered building, to help the clerks carrying heavy loads of file folders.

The large basement was primarily a print shop and shipping operation, also full of paper plus machinery. This part of the building did have fire sprinklers. Inadvertently, I said: “The pipe is all half inch!” My guide, the Chief Engineer, said: “Well, all the sprinklers are half inch!” , which was true. Those sprinklers were nearly useless.

Then I noticed the concrete basement floor was raised in one area. It was up about 5 inches, in a rectangle about  eight foot by ten feet, and boxes of copy paper had been stacked on the raised section. I looked up and saw an amazing welded galvanized pipe fitting. Starting with a flanged 8 inch outlet, this assembly consisted of several elbows, and some piping, and went diagonally under some ducts, over and around, and finally back up to tie into another 8 inch flanged outlet. There were two parallel 8 inch screwed pipes that this connected together.

As I wondered what this was (I am an Engineer), suddenly it flashed: Missing Fire Pump.

Sure enough, the two pipes went all the way back to the fire “riser”, a horizontal pipe coming in thru the basement wall, and were tied in on either side of a check valve. The gages showed about 40 psi in the basement.

I asked Mr. Chief Engineer, and he said: “Yes, the old fire pump had been removed, as it needed maintenance.” He said all was been done under permit, and with written permission of the Fire Prevention Bureau (FPB). He’d be happy to show me the documentation. (They could have just abandoned and capped off the pipes, did not need to spend what was probably thousands of dollars to go around a check valve!)

In his office, filed properly, he had a letter asking the FPB for permission. They replied he needed to have an Engineer verify that there was at least 35 psi at the roof.

I assume this was for the standpipes, where today’s codes call for 100 psi, enough to account for loss in the hose, and still operate an adjustable fog nozzle. But in those days 65 psi was code, and 35 might’ve been enough for a straight stream.

Then he had a letter from a local Mechanical Engineer, saying there was 35 psi at the roof, and finally another letter from the FPB giving their permission to remove the fire pump.

I wondered how 35 psi was possible, given the height of the building, and the Chief Engineer offered to show me: There, on the roof, on an air conditioning unit, was an inch and a half gage showing about 35 psi! The fire standpipes would not have worked, even if several upper outlets in the stairwell were not found open, unless perhaps supplemented by the responding engine at an inlet.

I will not go into the sad stories of the fire alarms, and other fire features,

but there is a moral to this story:

In those days, very often the FPB was staffed with firefighters on temporary light duty, or sometimes officers passing through, on their way to promotion to a higher rank.

There is a lot to learn about the Building Codes, Fire Codes, alarms, sprinklers and standpipes. A wrong call can make a big difference in a fire, that doesn’t show up until then. And not all Good Old Boy Engineers actually know fire protection details. The FPB should understand what they are approving.

I strongly recommend FPB people be properly trained.

“Uniformed” should NOT mean Un-Informed.

Hopefully, today’s FPB personnel are more knowledgeable, better trained, and would not approve such a thing.

About theAuthor:

James E.Art is a Registered Fire Protection Engineer with over 25 years of experience. A graduate of the Illinois Institute of Technology Fire Protection Engineering program, he does expert witness work; design review and inspection for cities, architects, engineers; code consulting; High Piled Storage Fire Code Reports; Alternate Means and Methods Requests; hydraulic calculations, and sprinkler design.You may contact him in California by telephone at (925)846-5060.