Fire Control vs Fire Suppression

The mission of our trade is simple, Help Others. We have an extensive list of ways we can complete this mission, based upon what we face at the moment. Never should we simply show up to complete and list of objectives, in a certain order for every situation.” Our goal is to arrive and protect life. Some circumstances dictate we protect buildings, to save life.”

Our trade, by its very nature, forces us to be one-step behind and response times vary across the country. Knowing where and how fire protection systems operate and how we can support them gives us an edge; we should use it to our advantage. When the opportunity to stay a few steps ahead presents itself, we must seize it.

Proper preplanning, quality training, and knowledge all add to our ability to minimize the gap. Having a thorough, working knowledge of suppression systems gives Incident Commanders and units operating in the building, the tools to conduct effective operations. Knowing the difference between fire control systems and fire suppression systems, allows you to understand what additional tactics are needed.

Control systems may be shutdown to allow firefighters to hit it with hand lines and perform overhaul. Suppression systems must be supported until full extinguishment has occurred. The tactics listed below are some of the tactical requirements based upon the system.

Fire Loss does not only affect the occupant or owner, it can affect the entire community. There is a loss of goods, services, jobs, revenue, along with a host of other social and economic impacts when a fire occurs in a commercial/industrial setting. Property Loss – The NFPA estimates that the 1,389,500 fires responded to by the fire service caused $11,659,000,000 in property damage in 2011. This is a very slight increase of 0.6%.* Reducing damage and loss is the goal of fire protection systems, as it is also our mission.

Fire Protection systems come in a variety of types, set ups and agents. These systems fall into one of two main categories, Fire Control and Fire Suppression. At first glance, they appear very similar. Once you dig in deeper, their unique purposes have a stark contrast.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has various standards regarding installed suppression systems. NFPA 13 Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems is the industry’s benchmark.

Inside this standard is the outline for system design. When designing a system the first goal is to identify what you are planning on protecting. A question the designer most likely asks of property owners “Will this be used to protect the structure or protect equipment?” This information is vital as the rest of the design process hinders on this information.

NFPA 13 2010 edition defines the two systems as such,

Fire Control – limiting the size of fire by distribution of water so as to decrease the heat release rate and pre-wet adjacent combustible, while controlling ceiling gas temperatures to avoid structural damage.


Fire Suppression – sharply reducing the heat release rate of a fire and preventing its regrowth by means of direct and sufficient application of water through the fire plume to the burning fuel surface.


To look at these definitions in another way, think of the standard sprinkler head in the middle of the room. When actuated it will CONTROL the fire by opening and flowing water in a general area.

Now think of a deluge head that is pointed towards an object, say a large pump. This head is directed towards the main bearing, the most likely heat source, in the event of a fire. This head will actuate and suppress the fire by application directly hitting the seat.

To ensure we see the full spectrum of systems, we want to address them in three ways. Building/Code Officials aka Fire Marshals and Fire Chiefs should be part of the design process during construction.

Be involved with the planning meetings and not only obtain information about the system but offer suggestions. Pre-planning in our next step. The crews on the streets need to get into the buildings, know where the systems are, what they protect and how to support them during an operation.

This information is in-valuable. As stated before the difference can be subtle to the untrained eye. Yet when it comes to tactics, which we will discuss later, this knowledge is priceless. Having written plans and drawings in the cab do so much for us at 3 am. Nevertheless, without a full understanding of “the why” they are not as great.

The final third is the training. Get your hands on the systems and the equipment needed. Several objectives should be met. Outline the difference between a control system and a suppression system.

Many control systems also include standpipes. Typically, the standpipes are on its own valve and piping. However, the FDC may supply water to both.


Standpipes are another consideration when dealing with systems. A quick review Class I standpipes are designed for fire personnel only, 2.5 inch connection. Class II is occupant use, 1.5/1.75 connection with a hose and class III is a combination 2.5 and 1.5/1.75.


Tactics and Strategies:

• Dedicate a crew to the system.

o Position an engine for system support using a dedicated hydrant or water supply. (New buildings may use a 5in Storz for inlets)

• Position an engine for attack/overhaul using a different water source.

o Position an engine for hose lines, overhaul and salvage on a separate source.

• Pull the appropriate size line.

• Do not shut down supply until IC orders.

• Do not use the hose on Standpipes, bring your own. (Unless 100% sure of performance)

• Support the system first.

• Check pressure gauges

o When approaching the valve to isolate a system and you are unsure which one to close, look at the gauges of other valves. The residual pressure will be less than the static pressure of the others.

• Size up area and determine system type.

• Prepare for Overhaul

o Hose lines are necessary with each type.

o Contact site personnel for assistance

 If dealing with a suppression system that protects equipment, site personnel will know it best.

Our job requires us to respond after a problem has occurred. With a little looking ahead and training, we can respond to buildings/contents protected by Fire Protection systems with above adequate information and skills. Understanding the difference between fire control systems and fire suppression systems will help you decide the best tactical requirements.

* FIRE LOSS IN THE UNITED STATES DURING 2011, NFPA, Michael J. Karter, Jr. September 2012