Other people may have been watching Alexandra Daddario in her performance as an unhappy honeymooner on HBO’s series “The White Lotus.” Patrick Smith was paying closer attention to a scene Ms. Daddario has in the new indie movie “Die in a Gunfight,” where she smooches with co-star Diego Boneta in a diner booth.
In the distance behind them, a kitchen fire breaks out, and the sprinkler system above the couple sprays water all over them, romantically, like they’re kissing in the rain.
Dr. Smith, a 33-year-old industrial safety consultant, collects clips like this, from movies and television, that he says incorrectly depict the way fire-sprinkler systems operate. Directors and screenwriters get it wrong a lot, he says. He isn’t a film buff, but he has found movies to be such a fertile source of instructive material, he decided to make them part of his personal sprinkler-awareness campaign.
“These movies and TV shows and commercials are most people’s sole understanding of how these systems work,” he says.
At his website hollywoodfiresprinklers.com, he lists many dozens of examples, dating back to 1937, and has assembled almost all the clips on his YouTube channel, Films on Fire—Sprinkler Sense, which is nearing two million views.
“I don’t think all of those views are people who really care about the fire sprinkler stuff,” he admits. “I think a lot of them see, oh, ‘Chicken Little.’ I want to watch ‘Chicken Little,’ ” he says, referring to the 2005 animated movie, “and they click on it, and it’s just that one scene”—in which the chicken is flung against a wall, pulls a fire alarm while sliding down, and triggers a deluge from the sprinklers—which isn’t what alarm pulls really do. “But my hope is, even if that’s the case, it at least draws attention to the fact that not all of these clips are an accurate portrayal of reality.”
Myth #1: Pulling a fire alarm activates the fire sprinklers.
He got his start curating sprinkler video clips while studying at Oklahoma State University, where he earned a Ph.D. in industrial engineering. In graduate school, he helped teach a course called Fire Dynamics and gathered scenes from popular entertainment to spice up his lectures. When he posted his list online in 2016, “it just kind of escalated from there.”
Sprinkler Age magazine mentioned him in a 2017 article, and people began submitting suggestions. Suddenly he was the Roger Ebert of sprinkler scenes. “It permeates every genre of film,” he says.
He discovers some examples serendipitously, partly because they are so frequent.
“The other day, I happened to walk through the living room, and my son who’s almost three was watching ‘Puppy Dog Pals,’ ” he recalls. “And they had a scene where the sprinklers are going off [after a robot dog makes popcorn that sends smoke wafting toward the ceiling]. So I paused that and was, like, ‘What episode is this?’ It’s always a little exciting to find another example. And at the same time, I’m disappointed.”
Recently, Dr. Smith and his wife Lauren put their children to bed and started watching the tense horror movie “A Quiet Place Part II.” When the camera zoomed in on a dripping sprinkler head, he went on high alert, but bit his tongue. “He has learned not to pause a movie in the middle and explain the workings of a sprinkler system to me,” Ms. Smith says.
Dr. Smith has identified five essential myths about fire sprinkler operation, and uses a coding system in his database to indicate which kind each film or TV show depicts.“ I started categorizing them shortly after I’d written a paper about the BP oil spill, categorizing the errors that led up to that blowout,” he says. “So I was in that mind-set and thought it would be interesting to do the same thing for this side project that I had.”
Myth #2: All sprinklers activate simultaneously.
The 2019 “Charlie’s Angels” reboot, for example, is flagged for spreading Myth #5, that a plume of smoke alone activates sprinklers. It doesn’t, Dr. Smith says. The 1937 Marx Brothers comedy “A Day at The Races” pushes Myth #1, when Harpo pulls a lever to activate the sprinklers. “That’s not something you would really see,” Dr. Smith says.
“Die in a Gunfight” and “A Quiet Place Part II,” he says, are guilty of Myth #2: “All sprinklers activate simultaneously.” It would be lousy engineering to have all the sprinkler heads in a facility spew at once, robbing water pressure from the spot where the fire is, he says. Most systems are designed to eject water only where a particular sprinkler head heats to fire-level temperature.
In “Aliens,” from 1986, Sigourney Weaver starts a gusher by holding a cigarette lighter up to a fire-sprinkler head, an improbability that perpetuates Myth #3. A hand-held flame typically isn’t hot enough to activate a sprinkler, Dr. Smith says, though he concedes that since the film concerns alien eggs on a spaceship in 2179, “maybe the physics work different.”
There have been glimmers of hope. Dr. Smith added a category code (#6) for rare films that get it right. In “Die Hard,” from 1988, Bruce Willis tries to foil the bad guys in the Nakatomi Plaza skyscraper by pulling a fire alarm, hoping to attract the fire department. None of the sprinklers do anything, which is exactly how it really works, Dr. Smith says.
Myth #3: Lighters/open flames activate the fire sprinklers (often from many feet away and after only a few seconds).
Myth #4: Fire sprinklers can be activated via the internet or some other magic button.
Collin Schiffli, director of “Die in a Gunfight,” didn’t mind being recognized for his sprinkler infraction. He feels Dr. Smith appreciates what other film critics have overlooked. The main character in “Die in a Gunfight” imagines his life in movie scenes, and the stylized sprinkler-rain kissing scene is part of his fantasy. “The script is poking fun at all the cliché movie tropes we’ve seen over the years,” Mr. Schiffli says.
Anyway, the director admits, he didn’t even know that a kitchen fire 25 feet away won’t trigger a downpour in a dining booth. “I’m like most people,” he says, “under the assumption, probably from watching movies, that the second something goes off anywhere, they’re all gonna get drenched.”