Hooray for Hollywood?

By Sal Izzo  |  September 23, 2015

It’s not often that our work with properties intersects with the glamour of Hollywood, but there’s one area where it occasionally does — automatic sprinkler systems. They’re commonly depicted in television shows and movies, usually in a highly dramatic way. But does Hollywood fiction intersect with sprinkler fact? As someone who knows sprinklers, I can tell you I’ve watched many a movie and annoyed my kids by yelling “but that can’t really happen” at the screen.  

Take The Matrix, which includes one of Hollywood’s greatest action scenes. A bomb goes off on the lowest floor of a building, causing massive flames to rage up through the elevator shaft into the lobby. Obviously, the sprinklers go off in the lobby. But they also go off on the top floor of the building, where no heat, flames, or even smoke has reached! Either that building has a sprinkler system designed for a nuclear reactor, or the filmmaker is taking a lot of poetic license with how sprinkler systems operate — not to mention the water pressure needed to supply their fantasy.

Another Hollywood scene in which sprinkler systems are used for dramatic impact is Die Hard. John McLean (played by Bruce Willis), in order to elude the villain, uses a plastic lighter to set off the sprinkler system throughout an entire building. Not likely! In real life, Willis would have received a small shower from one sprinkler. But that would have been a pretty unexciting climax to the scene.

I know that if the sprinklers didn’t create deluges in the movies, Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne might still be up there in The Matrix, and Bruce Willis might never have survived to star in four sequels to Die Hard. Besides, doesn’t everyone know that in real life sprinklers don’t go off everywhere at once and create a flood Noah would appreciate? Unfortunately, the answer is no.

Most people have never been in a real situation when an actual sprinkler operated. And that’s a good thing. Unfortunately, many have seen sprinklers go off only on television and in movies, and they think that’s how the systems really work.

Knowing the adequacy of the sprinkler system in a building, and whether it functions properly, can make all the difference when evading the villain, containing a fire, or calculating an insurable risk. Verisk is very involved in the latter two issues. Our field analysts perform many sprinkler-related functions when conducting property condition assessments (PCAs) for commercial lenders and property surveys for our insurer customers. In both instances, assessing the automatic sprinkler system for its capability, design, functionality, and inspection history, and determining it’s appropriateness for the property are critical. You won’t see that part in the movies, but that’s where the real action is.

If you’re an insurer interested in our Sprinkler Assessment Report, visit our Verisk Insurance Solutions website.

Sal Izzo

Sal Izzo, PE, SFPE, is manager, Verisk Commercial Real Estate.