Technical Blunder: Hollywood’s Persistent Failures Portraying Fire Sprinklers

As some of you know, my last real job before I went back to school in 2010 was designing fire sprinkler systems for commercial buildings.  Now, even though I haven’t drawn a piping plan or run a hydraulic calc in five years, I still habitually look at the ceiling of every building I enter.  I also tend to stop in parking garages to read the gauges and data plates on the sprinkler risers.  It’s hard not to notice sprinklers after you’ve spent several years thinking about them for eight hours a day.  Sometimes this makes it very hard to enjoy TV and movies.

Screenwriters love fire sprinklers.  Unfortunately, none of them ever seem to have bothered to learn how they work.  I have never seen a technically accurate fire sprinkler scene onscreen.

I’ve been watching the new Daredevil show on Netflix.  Like all of Marvel’s recent screen adaptations, it has turned out pretty well and I’ve been enjoying it.  They managed to get to Episode 11 without committing a fire sprinkler blunder, but when it happened it snapped my suspension of disbelief like a dry twig and took me completely out of the story.

(MINOR SPOILER ALERT)
Daredevil is fighting some goons in a drug lab when one of them accidentally fires his sub machine gun into a stack of nasty looking chemicals, which burst into flame.  The flames burn merrily along until Daredevil wrests the gun from the bad guy and shoots holes in the overhead sprinkler pipe.  Clean water runs out and good and bad guys alike escape to safety.  There are at least four things completely wrong with this scene.

  1. Except for a few highly specialized applications like restaurant grill hoods, sprinkler heads are designed to open automatically, usually at 165°F.  Shortly after the fire started, the nearest head would have automatically opened as the heat rose and was trapped against the ceiling.  This would probably put the fire out.  Around 85% of fires in sprinkled buildings are extinguished by a single sprinkler head.  If not, other nearby heads would open as the fire spread.
  2. Sprinkler pipe is made out of thick steel.  If you shot it with a small caliber, high velocity gun, more bullets would ricochet off of it than go through. Plus you’d likely hit yourself in the process.  But Daredevil is a super hero and the gun might have had armor piercing bullets, so we can let this one slide.
  3. The water in sprinkler pipe doesn’t circulate and is black and disgusting.  Always.  Even brand new systems don’t have clean clear water in them because of the mill scale inside the pipes and the cutting oil used on the threads.  The water in an existing system is the color of gas station coffee.
  4. All sprinkler systems, by law, have at least one alarm bell that rings any time water is going through the system.  Shooting a sprinkler pipe would set off the alarm and it wouldn’t stop until the city water ran out or the fire department turned it off.
Fair use justification:  these low-res stills from a TV show are being used for purposes of criticisim and/or education.  No public domain substitute is available.  There is no forseeable impact on Netflix's future profits.

a. Daredevil stands and talks while fire burns without setting off sprinklers. b) Daredevil shoots the sprinkler pipe. c) Clean water comes out. Somehow, most of the holes are on top of the pipe and the ceiling is somehow undamaged. [Copyright 2015 by Netflix]

This is just one scene from a television show.  At other times I have seen fire sprinklers in elevators (where does the water come from?), fire sprinklers that go off when the fire alarm button is pressed (they don’t) and hackers who somehow set off fire sprinklers remotely (they aren’t connected to the internet).  Almost always, when the sprinklers do go off, every head is shown opening at once, which never happens in a building system.  Now, I’m sure you can see how this might annoy me, but what does it have to do with writing?

The problem is that screenwriters don’t bother to do research outside of watching productions written by other screenwriters, who don’t know any more than they do.  Hollywood is an intellectual ouroboros, a snake eating its own tail.  There is no pressure, from producers or viewers, to get things right.  Nor is the problem unique to those who write for the screen.  Many fiction writers, especially genre writers, are just as bad.

If I was going to write a story about a Hollywood screenwriter, I would go and talk to one to make sure I got my facts straight.  Actually, since I live in LA, I probably already know more about the entertainment industry than the average sprinkler engineer.  I have a several friends who are actual screenwriters, and many of the sprinkler systems I worked on were on the campuses of movie studios and production companies.  I would still do my homework.  Writers who don’t do their research make stupid mistakes and cause people like me to dismiss their work.  Writers who do more research than they need create believable, interesting stories.

A very common type of fire sprinkler.  The red color-code means that the bulb will break at exactly 155 degrees, letting the water out.

A very common type of fire sprinkler. The red color-code means that the bulb will break at exactly 155 degrees, letting the water out.

Most fire sprinkler designers I know would be delighted to talk to a writer.  On any of the days I spent walking around Paramount, Warner Brothers, or ABC sketching their fire protection systems, I would have been thrilled if someone had come up to me and asked an intelligent question.  I’m sure that other technical specialists are the same.

So writers, if you are writing about something you don’t understand, reach out and ask someone who does.  If you’re writing a fire sprinkler scene, ask me.  I’d much rather help you than watch one more person get it wrong.

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