Fire Dept Operations in Buildings with Sprinkler Systems NFPA 13E

We all have buildings in our response area with automatic sprinkler systems, whether residential or commercial. This article will explain the recommended practices from NFPA 13E.
This recommended practice provides basic procedures and information for fire department use, and will assist you in developing training and planning. While similar to a code in content and structure, the use of the word “should” indicates non-mandatory provisions. Keep in mind this is not NFPA 13 or 13R and is not intended for inspection or repair, but will cover some basic things the fire department can and should do.
In this recommended practice, the fire department will be guided to understand the difference between a wet and dry system, its components and its use in the building. I will also cover such items as control valves, sprinkler heads, standpipe location and the Fire Department Connection, and touch on my own experience as a Chief Officer, and Fire Sprinkler Fitter.

Every fire department member should be knowledgeable of occupancy changes that render the system unsuitable for that building, such as an ordinary warehouse turned into a tire storage warehouse. Such construction, known as renovations are common, also be knowledgeable of any of your existing
properties with these systems. With help from the Authority Having Jurisdiction, and some pre-planning this can be accomplished. Another important element is the water supply. Inadequate water supply can create a short fall in the system. Perhaps the area has been built up and the city system doesn’t meet the required demand due to older water mains, or a valve in the street is closed. A change in storage height or overloaded storage with in the occupancy can also hinder the system. Pre- incident planning and good communication with your local Authority Having Jurisdiction should correct this. Whenever automatic sprinklers are installed in the response area, the fire department should implement a training program
and make it policy for members to make visits to the location. Members should become familiar with the protected property. Having an SOP/SOG which spells this out as well as your assignments for incidents that arise at these properties is also recommended in the standard.

When I was Chief, we made it a priority to visit any new, or newly renovated properties to become familiar with the changes. Of course, our trips to the local Home Depot every winter for frozen pipe made us very familiar with the systems.

Fire department members should thoroughly understand the construction, contents, and the nature of occupancies in the protected buildings. The location of the annunciator panel, the location of sprinkler valves, drains and which section of the building the system feeds will also need to be known. In warehouses or big box stores these systems are normally found in a back room and accessed from the outside, or along an outside wall inside the building and may be on a bank of one to three or four depending on the size of the building. The systems will be supplying sections of the building and in open ceiling construction will be easy to trace out to see where each one ends and the others begin. The more familiar you are with the building the easier it will become, closed ceilings will present another challenge, so pay attention on those alarm and nuisance calls as to where these systems go. If you have any doubt you can always contact the sprinkler company that services that building and they should be able to guide you.
A view around the outside of the building will tell you where the systems will be by identifying the outside wall control valve, or if a control valve is located inside, you will see a two inch drain coming out of the wall and in most cases the Fire Department Connection, and the water or electric fire bell. This is where pre-planning would be effective.

High rise or multi story buildings will have a room inside known as the SPRINKLER CONTROL ROOM or MECHANICAL ROOM. In this room you will find the main feed, fire pump and its components such as the control panel and jockey pump, and the main control valve. The spare head box will be located in here also. A riser, or stack system for the fire protection is on each floor level, usually found in one stairwell, which you will have to identify for that building in your pre-plan. On that stack will be the floor system for that floor coming off the main stack with all components such as, control valve, flow switch and drain, and a standpipe connection. The opposite stair well will have just a standpipe connection. In all buildings, know where
the Fire Department Connection is located and how to supply it. Again, pre-plan.

Most buildings today have a Knox box, if not, arrangements should be made with the property owner to make entry when no one is available and of course you have no fire. Each fire dept./company responding should follow the SOP to ensure a safe and efficient operation. Operations should be based on a thorough knowledge of the building. You can develop this technique each time you visit the building on prior alarms and inspection reports from your local fire inspection dept. A pumper should be designated to supply the Fire Department Connection.

First and foremost, make sure you don’t have a fire. Once that is determined, you will need to find the system in question, and by turning off the main control valve for that system and opening the drain valve, the system will begin to drain back, keep in mind these systems are not like a home faucet, they will not stop immediately. This will also work if it is just a broken pipe or sprinkler head . It is never a good idea to shut
down the system during a fire until you have hose lines in place for the fight, the sprinkler, if operating correctly should be holding the fire. With proper planning, training and knowledge these objectives can be easily accomplished.

Sprinkler system control valves must be indicating, which means they have to have some kind of indication to show if the valve is open or closed.

  • OS&Y also known as Outside Stem and Yoke, can be found on either system wet or dry, and on the suction side of the fire pump.
  • BUTTERFLY valve can be found on some systems.
  • PIV or Post Indicating Valve can be found outside on the property, and they have an indicator that reads OPEN / CLOSED

WPIV Wall Post Indicating Valve is the same as a PIV with the exception it hangs on the wall outside of the building. Other types of valves found on systems are: main drain valve, inspector test valve and a ball valve. Remember that when they are used for system control they have to be indicating, otherwise they are usually a drain of some sort. Make sure you are familiar with the systems in your buildings.

A building size up or pre plan will tell you the location of the systems and the Fire Department Connection. You will find by looking around the building, either a PIV, WPIV or no valve. The first two are a no brainer, but if it is an inside valve, you will know the system is on that side by seeing the drain coming out of the wall, or the Fire Department Connection in most cases will be on that wall and also the water bell or electric bell will be visible. Sometimes the Fire Department Connection will be located away from the building, again pre plan and inspection will help here. Don’t be afraid to drive your area on your days off and get around these buildings to become more familiar, it can help later on.

These systems are pretty basic and can be large or small. Easy to identify due to the fact that they are in heated areas, and not much to them except a drain, and some water gauges. Anti- Freeze loops are usually part of the wet system.

These systems are more complicated and can be large and small, but will have air in the system provided by an air compressor that is set to run automatically when the system loses air. They are located in buildings with no heat. The two systems mentioned are the basic ones, Pre- Action systems are a form of dry systems, and foam systems are form of a wet system. These type of systems will be found in special
instances, and may not be in your response area.

The most common heads are pendent, and upright. Pendent heads are found below the ceiling, and can be painted from the manufacturer only, they commonly come in chrome or brass color. They also have a matching or chrome cover plate called an escutcheon. NOTE: A concealed head is a form of pendent, its just that it has a flat plate which is tight to the ceiling making a flush look. Upright heads are found in an open ceiling, such as a warehouse, or big box store. The can also be used in spaces where a pendent would be to low like under a stair landing. Other types would be dry pendent, sidewall head, (dry or wet)
Early Suppression Fast Response (ESFR) these are special application heads.

All system valves, drains, test valves, Fire Pump rooms, Fire Dept. Connections are supposed to be labeled, so that should make things easier, if not let your Authority Having Jurisdiction know.

In closing, these systems can be intimidating, but once you understand the components this will get better. Document locations and zones for the next emergency. It is important to understand the emergency, the difference between a broken pipe or head that was hit or a freeze up, from a fire in the building. You must act according to your SOP/SOG in either case. Shut down the proper valve and only the proper valve, be careful when shutting a system with a fire pump, make sure you shut the pump off, and the system valve, if it is necessary to shut the city feed, again always shut the fire pump off according to the directions on the panel. The jockey pump can remain on. It will be important to post a fire watch and have the owner/occupant
call for repairs ASAP. The Authority Having Jurisdiction should follow up. I would recommend not trying to restore the system as this is a job for qualified personnel. A little knowledge and experience will go a long way in damage control when applicable. It is also a good idea to carry a pipe wrench, (14 or 18 inch ) on your apparatus, some of the older valves can be tough to turn. If the valves are chained and locked they usually have a brake a way lock and that can easily be removed. Bolt cutters work well too. This is just a basic run down, remember the idea of the recommended code is to guide you. Most sprinkler emergencies we respond to are from broken components, and damage limitation is the key.

Good luck and stay safe.


Joseph C Schroeck is a 38 year member of West Keansburg Fire Co. in Hazlet, NJ. He has held the position of Lieutenant, Captain, and multiple years as a Chief Officer. He holds a Instructor 2 pro board, serves as a Fire Commissioner and is a 30 year member of Sprinkler Fitters local 696 Newark, NJ For more information follow him on Facebook under Chief Concerns, or on the website

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