Now Is the Time to Sustain Our Cause for Residential Sprinklers

by Brett Lacey and Paul Valentine

We applaud the efforts of states such as California and Pennsylvania to successfully pass requirements for residential sprinklers that will positively impact the level of safety for the citizens and firefighters for years to come. Residential sprinklers are another tool in the toolbox for our suppression force.  Residential fire sprinklers drastically reduce the time necessary for our suppression forces to be on a fire scene to control and extinguish a fire, allowing our emergency resources to respond quickly to other life-threatening situation in our communities. Modern construction techniques and an ever-changing fuel load decrease the time for flashover and increases the intensity of the fires we are called to suppress. This results in firefighters being tasked to enter structures that may have significantly been weakened during the first few minutes after flashover.  In addition, many communities have fiscal challenges which are reducing the initial number of available personnel to mitigate the incident and increasing response times through closing of fire stations. All of these factors combined clearly indicate why one of the 16 Fire Fighter Life Safety Initiatives is Advocacy must be strengthened for the enforcement of codes and the installation of home fire sprinklers.

Okay. We get it. Residential sprinklers are great and are now part of the model codes, so we are done. Right?  The answer is no, we are not done. In fact, the work is just beginning. As professionals, we see the importance of residential sprinklers, but there are still those who disagree and clearly do not understand their benefits. How can we convince them otherwise? The answer is simple: Show them the facts.  How many people today dispute the effectiveness of smoke alarms in the home, air bags, or seat belts?

Some may still recall when seat belts or air bags were not required in autos. You may even remember some people making statements claiming these safety features were going to drive up the cost of autos so much that no one would be able to afford to buy them. Why is it now acceptable to have seat belts and air bags? The reason is that the insurance and automobile industries continue to provide statistics showing these devices save lives and are beneficial. They started collecting data early to clearly indicate their worth to the consumer.  The number of people who dispute their effectiveness or question why they are required in autos have all but dwindled away. We now have the opportunity to do the same for residential sprinklers.
 
The challenge for the fire service is that we are not coordinated in our data collection or in seeing the importance. However, we are starting to see the light.  Prior to the code hearings for residential sprinklers, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Fire Protection and Research Foundation conducted research on the cost of residential sprinklers. The report “Home Fire Sprinkler Cost Assessment" is available at www.nfpa.org. The results of this research continue to be a great tool for discussing the requirements and impacts for residential sprinklers.

In Scottsdale, Arizona, a residential sprinkler ordinance was implemented on January 1, 1986. Ten years after the ordinance was passed, the Rural/Metro (AZ) Fire Department published the first Scottsdale report. The study continues to be updated and used by many municipalities and fire districts seeking to pass a residential sprinkler ordinance.

We must begin our data collection NOW as we embark on requiring residential sprinklers in our communities. 

If the fire service has the ability to provide accurate statistical answers to the following questions, the arguments against residential sprinklers will dwindle, and their benefits will be clearly recognizable.

  •  How long have residential sprinklers been required?
  • What is the number of residential fires per year in single-family homes?   
  • What is the average cost of residential sprinklers per square foot?
  • How many single-family home fires have occurred in sprinklered homes? How many have occurred in homes not protected by automatic sprinklers?
  • What is the estimated total dollar loss from fires in sprinklered homes and homes not protected by automatic sprinklers?
  • What is the dollar amount of loss saved by the installation of automatic sprinklers (i.e., loss from fire without sprinklers present)?
  • How much water was used to suppress fires in homes protected by sprinklers?  How much water was used to suppress fires in homes not protected by sprinklers?
  • How many civilian fatalities have occurred in single-family homes with sprinkler protection? How many civilian fatalities have occurred in single-family homes without sprinkler protection?
  • How many firefighter injuries have occurred while suppressing fires in single-family homes with sprinkler protection? How many firefighter injuries have occurred while suppressing fires in homes without sprinkler protection?
  •  How many civilian injuries have occurred from fire in single-family homes with sprinkler protection and without sprinkler protection?
  • What is the average time on the scene for a fire in a home protected by automatic sprinklers, and what how many personnel are needed to mitigate the incident?
  • What is the average time on the scene for a fire in a home not protected by automatic sprinklers and how many personnel are needed to mitigate the incident?
  • Have residential fire sprinklers impacted the sale or resale of homes?

As fire service professionals, we can’t wait for someone to mandate us to collect data to answer these questions. We must step up and begin collecting data ourselves. We owe it to the next generation of fire professionals, who may someday have to fight this fight again and again. We have the ability now to begin proving the positive impact of residential sprinklers from a safety perspective and as a cost-effective solution for our escalating manual fire suppression costs. Once you adopt a residential sprinkler ordinance, begin the data collection process. Tailor your data collection to address your community. Picture yourself as the person required to give a presentation on the effectiveness of your 10-year residential sprinkler ordinance. What would you want to tell your elected officials or home builders ten years after you successfully fought for a residential sprinkler ordinance?

If we don’t start collecting the data we want distributed regarding residential sprinklers, someone else will do it for us; that someone may not collect data for the good of our service. We won’t be able to dispute the naysayers with the real facts unless we collect our data now. We hope states will not merely step up to require residential sprinklers but will also implement a method for us to collect the data we need to support residential sprinklers.

Brett Lacey is the fire marshal for the Colorado Springs (CO) Fire Department. He is a professional engineer and certified safety professional. He is co-author of the FPP text Fire Prevention Applications. He has served on various technical committees including NFPA 1031, Standard for Professional Qualifications for Fire Inspector and Plan Examiner,  IFSTA Committee for Inspection Practices, and Fire Detection and Suppression Systems, and the Colorado Fire Marshal's Association Code Committee. He has been an instructor for two community colleges and has been employed in the private sector as an HPR loss control representative and safety engineer. He has more than 27 years of experience in the fire service in a career and volunteer capacity as a nationally registered paramedic, firefighter, and a fire protection engineer.

Paul Valentine is a Senior Engineer with Nexus Engineering, located in Oakbrook Terrace, Illinois. Paul provides expert fire protection engineering consulting services to municipalities, commercial, government facilities, and the power industry. Prior to his position at Nexus, Paul served the Mount Prospect (Illinois) Fire Department for 18 years where he held the position of  fire marshal and fire protection engineer. He has five years of fire protection engineering experience at a Department of Energy research laboratory and as a loss control consultant in the insurance industry. He has a Bachelor of Science degree in fire protection and safety engineering technology from Oklahoma State University and a Master of Science degree in management and organizational behavior from Benedictine University. He is a graduate from the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program. He is also a principal committee member of the NFPA 1037, Standard for Professional Qualifications for Fire Marshal, and co-author of Fire Prevention Applications (Fire Protection Publications) and Fire Prevention Applications for the Company Officer (Fire Protection Publications). He can be reached at pvalentine@nexus-tech.com.

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