By Jeff Harrington, CEO and Founder of Harrington Group, Inc.

More failures! That is the future trend we are guaranteeing today for our building fire safety solutions.

Quality Control! This is what we must do better to mitigate this dangerous trend. The quality control I am focusing on in this article is that needed among the various building trades and design professionals during the construction phase of a building project.

“So what’s new in fire safety solutions?” you might say. Plenty. It has always been important for the building trades and design professionals to coordinate with each other. But it has never been as critical as it is today. The reason for this is the technological complexity of today’s fire protection systems.

This became clear to me back in 1990. I was checking a new sprinkler system in a world-class 500,000 sq.ft. corporate office building. I was brought in late; the building was 95% complete. I found that the sprinklers were special, incorporating new technology. These sprinklers were used to save money. They could cover 400 sq.ft. each, resulting in fewer sprinklers overall and a more economical system.

Here’s the catch. These sprinklers can cover 400 sq.ft. as long as they are installed in a ceiling not over 9 feet above the floor. This beautiful new building had ceilings that were 9 feet-6 inches above the floor. Oops!

Suddenly, a brand new item needed to be added to the coordination checklist of every architect, engineer, general contractor and sprinkler contractor working on office/administrative buildings. Does this 6-inch mistake matter? Yes! It could cause the sprinkler system to fail to control a fire.

Since that incident, the trend toward increasing technological complexity in fire protection systems has continued at a rapid and accelerating pace. Literally hundreds of new system options, and related limitations and restrictions, have been introduced. Along with this increasing complexity is a narrowing of the installation tolerances for equipment spacing and orientation. Installing to the nearest foot, plus or minus, used to be good enough. Now it must be to the nearest inch, plus or minus, or the system could fail.

Unfortunately, the coordination checklists of the architects, engineers and contractors have not kept up with the pace. The result is that fire protection systems are being routinely installed today which take advantage of many sophisticated technological advances. However, the limitations and constraints attendant to these advances are often not adhered to. They are ignored or overlooked during the construction process. This, in turn, leads to sloppy system installations.

The fact is, fire protection systems today are more complex, and it is harder to build them properly without slop. The percentage of sloppy systems in existence today is higher than it used to be. This is a dangerous trend because of the nature of these systems. They are fire protection systems. Their purpose is to defend the building, the building occupants, and emergency personnel from the harmful effects of a hostile fire within the building.

Fire protection systems literally protect lives. A sloppy system may fail to do this and is, therefore, a potentially dangerous system.

How can this dangerous trend be reversed? There must be an increase in awareness, retooling and enforcement.

The parties responsible for this problem must become aware that they are part of the problem. The responsible parties include architects, engineers, building owners, general contractors, fire protection system contractors, many of the trade subcontractors, public fire prevention officials, and equipment manufacturers.

The responsible parties must retool to successfully deal with the technological complexity of fire protection systems. The retooling needed includes both equipment and materials in the traditional sense and training to provide the necessary skills to use the tools successfully.

Enforcement needs to improve in all of its forms. Contractors must do a better job of quality assurance so that they find and correct the slop as construction progresses. Building owners need to hire the design professionals to perform quality assurance reviews during the construction process. The design professionals need to do a more thorough job of quality assurance and take it more seriously. The public fire prevention officials need to be more thorough also, or require the building owner to provide for a thorough, independent quality assurance review to include final acceptance testing of the systems.

Finally, the equipment manufacturers have a responsibility to design equipment and systems that can more easily be built without slop. They must recognize the limitations of the construction process and find ways to improve system performance and economy while minimizing the limitations and constraints relative to fire safety solution installation.