July 18, 2017

Spontaneous Combustion and An Incident Worth Thinking About

We have been using an automobile upholstering company in Lawrence, MA, for years. Good quality, attention to detail at a reasonable price. My wife and I arrived at their business at 8AM on a Monday for a scheduled appointment to repair her driver’s seat. We found their office furniture out on the sidewalk in front of their establishment. They had experienced a very smoky fire on Saturday night. They were in the final stages of remodeling their building on Saturday when the painters applied the final coat of finish to the floors. They disposed of the clean-up material and rags in a five gallon bucket in their work area on the first floor. Spontaneous combustion occurred at 2AM on Sunday morning although the building, a wood framed, three story building with residential units on the second and third floors above the upholstery shop, was equipped with an automatic fire sprinkler system, there were no smoke detectors in the shop on the first floor. That floor was equipped with heat detectors in addition to the sprinkler system. There was no remote station connection to the fire service, but the security system was connected to the Lawrence Police Department, and the motion detectors detected the smoke movement and tripped the communicator. The arriving police called the fire department.

There were no injuries or loss of life, and the owner, Sal, and his staff, amazingly, were up and running at a new temporary location when we arrived on Monday.

Sal admitted to me that he had no idea what spontaneous combustion was or how it was caused. This points out to me the importance for those that “lay out” fire alarm systems to possibly think about asking an FPE to review your design. Granted, not all proprietors will be finishing their floors or experiencing the issues that would lead to the possibility of spontaneous combustion. However, there may be other risks that those who design or lay out a system may not recognize where an FPE might at least suggest the possibility that a risk exists. They might recommend a change in your system design. And remember, the Codes are minimums. A few smoke detectors on the first floor and a remote station connection might have saved Sal a lot of anguish, even though the Code did not require either. A risk analysis, which most FPEs perform, coupled with the residential occupancy above the commercial space on the first floor might have indicated the need for smokes on the first floor.

For those who are laying out fire alarm systems, be careful, be precise and above all know and do the right thing. If you’re not sure, get some help, and in those extreme cases, suggest that an FPE do the design. This will allow you to sleep at night. It has for me.

Bob Hill,
Robert Hill & Associates, LLC
110 Haverhill Road, Suite 376
Amesbury, MA 01913

Bob Hill is not a PE or an FPE. He is a licensed electrician in Massachusetts and has over fifty years experience in fire alarm systems industry.