Fire marshals say sprinkler recall too slow

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Saturday, April 1, 2006

WASHINGTON--A recall of fire sprinkler heads that began in 2001 and is proceeding "exceedingly well," according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission and some others in the fire industry, is back in the news.
Not satisfied with the progress of the recall, National Association of State Fire Marshals president James Burns on Feb. 14 sent a letter to three Tyco executives asking the company to "rapidly accelerate the replacement of recalled sprinklers." It also asks Tyco to support NASFM's efforts to change fire codes to require more passive fire protection such as fire walls.
Further, the letter proposes a meeting between Burns and the Tyco executives--David Robinson, president of Tyco Fire and Security; William Lytton, executive vice president and general counsel of Tyco International; and Naren K. Gursahaney, senior vice president of operational excellence--to "candidly discuss the challenges we collectively face."
In 2001, laboratory testers discovered that 20-to-45 percent of rubber O-rings in certain sprinkler valves could corrode and prevent the flow of water. There were as many as 35 million sprinkler heads with this perceived defect already installed, manufactured by three companies--Central, Star and Gem--all now owned by Tyco Fire and Building Products. Tyco began the voluntary recall in 2001.
Calls to John Burns of NASFM were not returned before press time. Carmine Schiavone, vice president of business development and communication for Tyco Fireand Building Products, said that Tyco would respond to the letter privately and "entertain a meeting if one is warranted."
"Fundamentally, we're all on the same team. We all believe in fire safety and protection," Schiavone said. "We support NAFSM and are in regular contact with them," he said. "But we believe it's unfair to characterize fire sprinklers as not being effective because of the recall."
Tyco supplies free replacement heads and labor, and maintains an informational web site, www.sprinklerreplacement.com.
Schiavone pointed out that there are 800-plus million sprinkler heads installed in the United States and noted that half of the 36 million in question have "been located, changed or are in the process of being changed." Tyco has spent "a few $100 million on the recall effort and we're working very hard every day to find and replace all of these sprinklers."
Despite the possible defect, the vast majority of these sprinkler heads would operate in the case of fire in a building with normal water pressure.
There have been claims of product damage, but no deaths have been associated with the recalled sprinklers. Julie Vallese, director of public affairs for Consumer Product Safety Commission, said the recall is the fourth largest in the agency's history. "The rate of replacement of defective sprinkler heads is going extremely well."
John Viniello, president of the National Fire Sprinkler Association, said the cost of building materials put the onus on the builder when they "already have a safe building with the sprinklers."