Fire Commentary: Community Fire Protection

by Mark J. Finocchio

The time has come for action on community fire protection. In no uncertain terms, it’s time to get policies in place, laws changed, and codes updated. The U.S. fire service has been under enormous pressure for many years to provide adequate suppression forces to address the fire problem. In March 2008, two very influential sources have staked their positions on this issue. On March 13, The International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) Board of Directors issued a position statement on fire sprinklers in new construction. The statement is global in intent, addressing the need to provide all new construction, including one- and two-family dwellings with built-in protection.

I have had the opportunity and distinct pleasure to work with Chief Steve Westermann, IAFC president, on a few projects over the years. He and the IAFC Board of Directors are all strong believers in using built-in protection to help offset the expense of overstaffing their departments and thereby reducing an exceeding tax burden on their constituents. It is simple math, yet it has taken too many years for our leadership to feel comfortable in taking a strong position on this public safety issue. The hesitation has been political rather than philosophical. The resistance by home builders and their related associations (and the political pressure they have created) has always hinged on the cost factor. Granted, the cost for providing built-in protection fundamentally rests with the owners of new structures, but maybe now we’ll see the costs begin to approach a more reasonable level based on economies of scale.

The second position statement came from U.S. Fire Administrator Greg Cade on March 28. Cade and the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) have adopted the official position that both smoke detectors and residential fire sprinklers should be installed in all new homes. Additionally, he advocates the proposed changes to the International Residential Code (IRC) that would require automatic fire sprinklers in all new homes. Cade cites many of the same facts and figures I have used in other Fire Engineering articles and goes further by highlighting data generated by the Center for Fire Research at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

The three facts that really tell the story are startling in impact. When smoke detectors alone are installed in a home, the chances of dying in a fire are reduced by 63 percent . When fire sprinklers alone are installed in a residence, the chances of dying in a fire are reduced by 69 percent. When both smoke detectors and fire sprinklers are installed, the possibility of dying in a fire is reduced by 82 percent. If that doesn’t make believers out of even the most casual observers, I’m not sure what will. We in the fire service know full well the impact of sprinklered occupancies. Many progressive areas of the country, including the Phoenix, Arizona, metropolitan area and the Chicagoland area have already established ordinances that require built-in protection in new residential occupancies. Those of us assigned to prevention duty have been continually busted on by the troops for doing too good a job. The only thing is we can do better!

The Immediate Future

I believe that the day we in the prevention side of the fire service have longed to see may finally be in view. I have long advocated the need for a “zero square footage” code. Essentially, if you build a structure designed to accommodate human activity, you need to provide built-in protection. The city I work in has made several distinct amendments, beginning in 1987, to the original Uniform Fire Code and now the International Fire Code to require fire sprinklers in more occupancies than were typically required with the base code. We have modified our hose-reach requirements and made sure that private fire hydrants were installed to accommodate the modified minimum reach flow of 1,000 gallons per minute with a 20 psi residual. In other words, we can use private fire hydrants, instead of longer lays from city hydrants, for primary fire flow.

Our city has one of the lowest fire loss rates in the United States; that can be directly linked to aggressive code enforcement and prevalence of fire sprinklers (close to 600 systems in a city of 45,000 people). Our department is ISO Class 2 and citywide (34.4 square miles, nearly half of which is still rural, with four fire stations and a fifth on the way) and really only a stone’s throw from a Class 1 Public Protection Class rating. Our department has been accredited by the Center for Public Safety Excellence for the second time. It has taken a lot of hard work and diligence by our department, leadership from our administration, and acceptance by the community to accomplish what we have. Can we do even better? The answer is yes.

Along with our building code official, we have offered an IRC code amendment to the International Code Council that will require automatic fire sprinklers to be installed in all single-family, zero-lot line residences (townhomes). We hope to see this amendment become part of the code in the 2009 code cycle. These efforts are only the start of what I believe is necessary to address the needs of our communities.

I participate in an online forum for fire sprinkler issues, and skeptical fire sprinkler contractors and fire code officials from several different areas of the country challenged me. Their belief is that this effort does not have the full support of the fire service leadership in this country. One comment I received went so far as to say that most firefighters believe that they are the best fire protection for the community. My response was that we need to bring all the groups together for active discussion and debate, display leadership, and to work toward the goal of having built-in protection for every occupancy Using this strategy and exploiting the prowess and influence of all these groups will show the country that it is truly that important to us. Regardless of your views on this issue–please put aside your emotional response that you are not getting to fight fires–realize that these efforts will produce a much safer community and a much safer work environment for firefighters.

The Distant Future

All of this talk about the requirement of sprinklers is emotional for many firefighters. Some are passionate for–and some are anxious about–the possibility. There really are no firefighters who are against the need for safer buildings that result in safer communities; the fear is that the ranks of firefighters will be reduced. Uncontrolled fire will always be within human communities, thus the need for firefighters will always exist. The goal should be to reduce the instances of uncontrolled fire that take life and create property damage by using existing and future technologies. When you look at the thousands of lives taken on an annual basis and the billions of dollars in property damage, you can see that the societal impact of uncontrolled fire is excessively high and unacceptable. If we can reduce these numbers by double-digit percentages, then we can say we have a safer, more conscientious society whose primary interest is in saving life and property.

I see the future fire service as a combination of heavy and light resources. I think that the first response of personnel will be on “rapid suppression-, loss mitigation”-type apparatus. These companies will require two to three personnel whose duty will be to assess the need for additional resources once on the scene. Once the assessment for the need of additional resources is made, specifically on occupancies that have built-in protection, they will complete suppression activities. They will provide services necessary to limit the loss of property and then return the sprinkler/suppression system back to service with equipment on the apparatus. Of course in the case of built-in protection, the response will be dictated by the receipt of an automatic alarm indicating the type of activation. In the case of a response by heavy resources, the calls requiring a heavy response will be to unsprinklered occupancies and any other unknown type of confirmed fire situation.

In the early 1970s, the “mini-maxi” concept could be looked back on as a concept way ahead of its time. The emergence of the fire insurance patrol units or salvage corps that were in place in Chicago, New York City, and other urban areas for the latter part of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries performed many of the activities that these rapid suppression units would perform. The fire patrol units were not capable of fire suppression; they were considered primarily salvage squads, but most of their members performed firefighting work as well.

Again, the idea is not new. This would be a re-purposing of an already proven concept. I hope that the dialogue has begun and that we can finally engage in a definitive discussion that will result in real progress. If we fail to address the obvious need, then we will continue to cost ourselves and the community in lives and dollars.

Mark J. Finocchio is a captain and paramedic assigned to the Prevention division of the Lenexa (KS) Fire Department. He is a certified firefighter II & III, fire apparatus engineer, and fire instructor II. He also has ICC certification as a fire inspector II. He is a 25-year veteran of the emergency services. He has served as a full-time firefighter/paramedic, a fire apparatus operator, a company officer, an EMS Director, a deputy chief and the chief for several agencies.

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