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5 movie myths about fire that may surprise you

by Jackie Berens

5 movie myths about fire that may surprise you

The Only Thing that Should Burn is a Disco Inferno

We’ve all seen the scene in The Incredibles when a small amount of smoke from a self-destructing note causes the entire sprinkler system to go off and douse the family. Movies are designed to bring impossibility to reality for viewers. With alien invasions, transforming cars, and flying humans that’s just fine. But one movie effect that is misconceived too frequently is fire safety, and it can be dangerous. 

Sprinkler systems don’t drench you.

One of the most blatant false portrayals of fire protection systems is the use of fire sprinklers. Countless movies have shown us characters getting doused with water after a tiny amount of smoke is near a single sprinkler. 

Sorry to disappoint, but the scene in Die Hard when John McLean sets off all the sprinklers with a lighter is not feasible outside of the big screen. Hollywood dramatics make our perception of fire protection systems skewed.

In reality, each sprinkler head is triggered individually. As the heat spreads throughout a building, more sprinkler heads are activated. While deluge systems do exist, they are not as common and are typically used in very specific applications such as power plants, aircraft hangers, and chemical plants. 

A little smoke doesn’t trigger your sprinkler system

Smoke actually does not trigger a sprinkler system to turn on. Despite what The Incredibles depicts, sprinkler systems detect heat in a building and activate based on the heat temperature within the room. In Changing Lanes we see a similar movie myth, Ben Affleck lights a piece of paper on fire and holds it under a sprinkler head, triggering all the sprinkler heads in the office building. As this might add to the theatrics of a Hollywood flick it is not the mechanical truth of a fire sprinkler system.

Pulling the fire alarm does not discharge water.

Remember the scene in Mean Girls when the principal hits the fire alarm pull station with a baseball bat and all the sprinkler heads go off? Yeah… that’s not true either. Activating a pull station doesn’t trigger the sprinklers to dispel water, it sends a signal to the main fire alarm panel which activates the alarm and notifies occupants to get out of the building. 

If every time a fire alarm pull station was activated, even accidentally (which happens quite frequently especially in educational environments) and the sprinklers went off, it would cause an immense amount of property damage. Here’s how it REALLY works: when pulling a fire alarm pull station, the alarm sends a signal to the fire alarm panel and activates the alarm to notify occupants to leave. 

You can use the wrong type of fire extinguisher. 

Firefighters use dry chemical extinguishers or hose lines to extinguish fires, like the car fire in Terminator 3. The firefighters in Terminator 3 use carbon dioxide fire extinguishers to try to put out the car fire, which, in reality, could have made it worse. In real fire situations, the wrong type of fire extinguisher could spread the fire or not put out the flames. Here’s a quick recap of the different types of fire extinguishers and their uses: 

  • Class A: freely burning, combustible solid materials such as wood or paper
  • Class B: flammable liquid or gas
  • Class C: energized electrical fire (energized electrical source serves as the ignitor of a class A or B fire – if electrical source is removed, it is no longer a class C fire)
  • Class D: metallic fire (titanium, zirconium, magnesium, sodium)
  • Class K: cooking fires – animal or vegetable oils or fats

Using the elevator after the fire alarm or sprinkler goes off won’t work.

A fire breaks out on the 13th floor, the main character jumps into the elevator to get away. If this was actually possible, it would be extremely dangerous. When fire protection systems activate, the elevators will be removed from normal service and recalled to a specific landing. This action prevents the possibility of occupants being delivered to a smoke or flame-filled area. 

Understanding what fire protection services can do for you is an important part of your building safety. While most of the movie scenes are extremely entertaining, they don’t give you an accurate representation of what you should do when a fire occurs. As you start considering your fire prevention tactics, begin with implementing the proper fire safety measures in your building.

5 movie myths about fire that may surprise you

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5 movie myths about fire that may surprise you
5 Fire Safety Movie Myths that May Surprise You