Of the 688,000 structure fires reported in 1989, according to NFPA statistics, 513,000 were in residential occupancies. Home fires killed every 121 minutes in 1989 and every 106 minutes in 1988. Annually, home fires claim about 80 percent of total fire deaths. It is easy, therefore, to understand the emphasis the fire service has been placing on residential sprinklers in recent years.

“Residential fire protection systems have been proven technologically. We know they work and save lives,” asserts Ron Coleman, chief of the City of Fullerton (CA) Fire Department.

Statistics show that there has never been a multiple loss of life in a fully fire-sprinklered building. In most cases, the fire is out before the fire department arrives—a crucial consideration when looked at in the light of the following data: A small flame can become an uncontrollable fire in 30 seconds; a whole room can flash over in three minutes; and an entire house can go up in flames in five minutes.

The reliability of a sprinkler system also is enhanced by the fact that its ability to save lives does not depend on human factors such as the occupants’ being familiar with escape routes and knowing how to summon emergency assistance.


The data base validating the sprinkler as an effective way to reduce fatalities in home fires has been growing. Cobb County, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta, alone has recorded more than 18 residential fires that were successfully controlled by sprinklers; it is estimated that these fires could have produced at least 17 fatalities were the sprinklers not present.

In one scenario, a mother awakened by the cries of her 20-month-old daughter went to the nursery and found it on fire; a window fan had short-circuited. The activated sprinkler head above the baby’s crib was showering water droplets on the baby, who responded by crying. The smoke detector that also was present had not gone off because it Operated on the same circuit as the fan. Not only were no lives lost, but property loss was held to SI00.

Another incident involved a fire that occurred in a group home for developmental^ disabled adults. Fred Hawkins, fire marshal of St. Petersburg, Florida, relates that one of the residents left a lighted cigarette she had been smoking in a closet. Around 2 a m., a sprinkler head in the closet (his department had sold the owner on the idea of installing the system) activated and set off an alarm. Although the fire burned out the closet door, the sprinkler extinguished the fire. “All we had to do when we arrived was to remove the water below the activated sprinkler head,” Hawkins reports. “This scenario was the prime picture of a potential multivictim incident.”

Firefighters’ safety also is enhanced by the presence of residential sprinklers. Statistics show that a significant number of the deaths and injuries sustained by firefighters annually occur in residential fires.


Almost $4 billion in residential property was lost in 1989 The highest per-capita rates were in the Northeast— S40.4 per person—and in the South—$39.5 per person. These figures were more than 16 percent and 13 percent higher, respectively, than the national average.

A 1982 study of sprinklered and unsprinklered dwellings by the City of Scottsdale, Arizona, and the U.S. Fire Administration showed property savings of 85 percent with automatic sprinklers.

“A sprinkler division is good use of a fire department’s manpower,” observes Lt. Jerry Grier, head of the Cobb County Fire Department’s Sprinkler Division. “These personnel prevent more fire damage than those fighting fires. Sprinklers work. We’ve had more than 50 fires and a minimum of S20 million worth of property at risk in sprinklered garden apartments, and no one even had to vacate the premises.”

To be fully effective, however, sprinklers must be designed for the fire load, properly maintained, and installed in all building areas. Partial sprinkler protection is risky, since a fire originating in an unsprinklered area can overpower the sprinkler system if the fire spreads before the sprinkler is activated.


Residential sprinkler systems incorporate the new fast-response technology that make them considerably more sensitive to heat than standard sprinkler systems. At least a dozen residential sprinklers are listed in the NFPA 13D standard for oneand twofamily dwellings and mobile homes; they include flush, recessed, and sidewall styles. Pendant sprinklers currently available cover areas up to 18 feet by 18 feet, and sidewall sprinklers cover areas up to 16 feet wide by 20 feet long.

Specifically written to cover the installation of listed residential sprinklers in oneand two-family dwellings and mobile homes, NFPA 13D, adopted in 1975, permits (for economical reasons) sprinklers to be omitted from certain areas in the building that are required to be sprinklered under NFPA 13 (the standard for commercial occupancies). NFPA 13D also permits two-sprinkler design areas, to accommodate limited domestic water supplies.

The most recent residential sprinkler standard, NFPA 13R (adopted in 1989), provides guidelines for lifesafety-oriented economical sprinkler protection for low-rise (up to four stories in height) residential occupancies that include apartments, lodging and rooming houses, hotels and motels, and board-and-care facilities (slow evacuation capability up to 16 residents and fast-evacuation capability)-

Other sources that contain stipulations for the design and installation of residential sprinklers are Uniform Building Code (UBC) 38-1 for the Design Installation and Acceptance of Automatic Fire Sprinkler Systems and ordinances, resolutions, and policies for incorporated (city, town, etc.) and/or procedures for unincorporated (county) areas.


Unfortunately, the effectiveness of residential sprinklers does not equate with acceptance. There is and has been opposition to them despite the efforts of and progress made in recent years by fire departments and other life-safety advocates. A good part of the negativity surrounding these sprinklers is misinformation relating primarily to concerns about their performance and destructive capability. Many residents and builders believe, for example, that sprinkler systems frequently malfunction. In fact, however, the loss records of Factory Mutual Research indicate that only 1 in 16 million sprinklers in service per year probably will automatically discharge due to a manufacturing defect.

As far as sprinklers causing extensive water damage is concerned, sprinklers cannot be activated by the heat of a match—as some critics have stated. Most sprinklers respond to temperatures of 160°F and above. Moreover, the amount of water applied to an unsprinklered fire by fire department hoses is almost always ten to hundreds of times more than the quantity of water the sprinklers would have discharged. Only the sprinklers closest to the location of the fire’s origin activate, and the majority of fires are handled by one or two sprinkler heads. In addition, since the fire in the majority of cases is prevented from spreading, the total amount of water needed to suppress the fire is less. A factor often overlooked in such arguments is the extent of fire and smoke damage that would have been caused by a fire that progressed because there were no sprinklers to control its grow’th initially.

“Sprinklers have gotten a bad rap from the way they have been portrayed in television programs and movies,” stresses Fire Marshal Hawkins from St. Petersburg. “You often see a full room of sprinkler heads going off at once, giving many people the mistaken notion that they cause water damage.”

Hawkins says that this type of misinformation has influenced the public: “I had funds available through a FEMA grant to install sprinklers in two buildings that were part of an urban redevelopment program. In return for installing the sprinklers, the owners were given low-interest loans for their homes and a sprinkler system worth S3,000 for free. All they had to do was buy S270 worth of materials, the cost of which was put back into the loan — there was no out-of-pocket expenditure. 1 had to go to six home owners before I could find two who would accept the offer.”

These misconceptions also have surfaced among the arguments used by builders to thwart the passage of pro-residential sprinkler legislation in some parts of the country (see sidebar on page 50).


The public’s tendency to overestimate the fire-resistant aspects built into their homes also is clouding the sprinkler/safety issue. Many residents believe, for example, that the design of a multistory building can stop fire and smoke from penetrating the floors above a fire, that fire-protection features installed at the time of construetion will continue to remain effective as time passes, and that noncombustible building materials cannot catch fire.

Most residents do not know that many of the features they depend on for fire protection often have been modified, disabled, or removed by occupants or are inoperative because they have not been properly maintained. A 1987 study by CIGNA Insurance Loss Control Services, for example, showed that 41 percent of firedoors in structures were defective.

Few individuals outside the fire service are aware that extenuating circumstances can interfere with the fire suppression forces’ ability to extinguish some fires. Many codes, for example, allow fire areas that present firefighters with work loads that exceed their resources. Should flashover occur before the fire department arrives, which is more probable when the fire’s growth is not checked by sprinklers, the occupants’ chances for survival are greatly reduced or eliminated. Residents also do not realize that the probability that flashover will occur has increased in direct proportion to the amount of combustible furnishings found in today’s homes— double that found in 1970, according to some studies.


“The residential sprinkler issue,” says Chief Coleman, “has become a strange mixture of economics and ethics, and economics is preventing the sprinklers from being used where they can do the most good —in homes.” He expects the struggle between sprinkler advocates and adversaries to continue. “It’s almost as though we’re playing on two separate fields,” he observes.

Yet, the records show that sprinklers can be cost-effective. According to insurance statistics, fire damage is many times greater in unsprinklered structures. Some of the major insurance companies, furthermore, offer discounts ranging from two to 15 percent on premiums for sprinklered buildings.

From the builder’s perspective, including sprinklers can lower construction costs, since their presence makes possible construction alternatives that otherwise would not be allowed under most fire and building codes. Among these options are substituting one-hour separation walls for twoor four-hour walls, placing hydrants farther apart, and relaxing travel-distance-extension requirements (between windows and doors, for example).

“We have had some success in getting sprinklers in new structures when we work with the developers and show them where they can save money initially or in the long run (insurance costs),” says Hawkins.

Retrofitting sprinklers for existing oneand tw’o-family homes, however, presents greater economical (and political) barriers. Many localities, consequently, have put retrofitting requirements on hold for the time being.


The sprinklers available today should neutralize much of the concern surrounding their aesthetics. Sprinkler heads now can be concealed behind ceilings and remain out of sight until they are needed to extinguish a fire, and the systems come in a variety of sizes and colors to blend with virtually any decor.

Actually, builders in Cobb County, Georgia, have achieved a greater degree of aesthetic freedom by installing sprinkler systems in their buildings, notes Lt. Grier. The resulting flexibility gives them a marketing edge because the units are more attractive and are sold or rented more quickly and at higher prices than conventional (unsprinklered) units in the marketplace. Complying with the codes for unsprinklered wood-frame, garden-style structures in the area is complicated and very difficult at best, he explains.

Some builders in Florida will accept sprinklers as viable alternatives to mandated code requirements that often interfere with the visual appeal of their structures, Hawkins relates. He gives the vertical-separation requirement as an example. Complying with this feature without sacrificing aesthetic qualities is difficult —especially around monumental stairs, he points out.

Residents and builders must be convinced of the benefits of sprinklers. “A great selling job is needed, and you must sit with a number of players,” stresses John Nelson, chief of the Fire Prevention Bureau for the state of Florida. “Builders and home owners must be shown that they are protecting their lives and investments.”


The status of residential sprinkler requirements varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction:

  • Cobb County, Georgia. Sprinklers arc required only for structures covered under NFPA 13; there are options for oneand two-family structures, according to Lt. Grier. Growth here has been rapid, and the fire department has made the sprinklering of new garden-style twoand threestorv apartments, condominiums, and town houses a priority. Cobb County’s population, now 500,000, grew from 7,000 since 1971.
  • Arizona. A Peoria ordinance stipulates that new buildings 2,500 square feet or larger, except oneand two-familv homes, must be sprinklered. Should the occupancy of an existing unsprinklered structure meeting this size criterion change, sprinklers then must be installed. Last year. Fire Inspector Jack Brown says, the city passed an ordinance requiring builders to offer sprinklers to home owners as an option.

No Tucson codes or ordinances mandate sprinklers, according to Dennis Van Auken, deputy chief of operations. Tremendous opposition to sprinkler legislation has caused at least one other Arizona city to abandon its initiatives at present and makes help from the state legislature appear unlikely, Van Auken says.

  • Florida. The state generally has innovative sprinkler laws, according to Nelson, who adds that all local governments—county, city, and municipality—are mandated to adopt minimum fire codes addressing all occupancies. The fire marshal develops standards for hospitals, child-care facilities, migrant labor camps, and similar facilities. Although some cities in Florida, such as Longboat Key, have adopted ordinances that require residential sprinklers, Nelson believes much more must be done to educate the public about the need for residential sprinklers. “We are going to have to do a better job of selling, and the insurance companies also must get involved,” he stresses.

In St. Petersburg, Florida, there are no requirements for residential sprinklers. “We are firmly in favor of sprinklers, but the issue is a political one,” Hawkins says. The 1988 NFPA 101 Life Safety Code or applicable building codes are followed.

  • Rhode Island. A bill in the state’s House of Representatives created a nine-member commission to study the issue of installing automatic sprinkler systems in residential occupancies. The commission held one meeting, but nothing concrete came out of it, according to Frederick A. Stanley, chief of the Hope Valley/Wyoming Fire District and president of the Rhode Island Association of Fire Chiefs. At present, he says, Building Officials and Code Administrators International (BOCA) and other applicable national and city codes are being followed.
  • Plano, Texas. All occupancies in excess of 7,000 square feet (less than 5 percent of the community’s buildings) must be sprinklered. “We are looking to drop the minimum to 5,000 square feet in two years,” relates Chief William Peterson. “We also would like to improve on the requirements for multifamily dwellings, which at present stipulate that threestory structures of eight or more units be sprinklered. Two-story, eight-unit
  • buildings are not sprinklered.” He notes that the fire department “got some real compliance in 500 new private single-family detached residences.”
  • Champaign, Illinois. James Dickey, director of the Building Safety Division, explains that there are no local requirements. BOCA codes apply.
  • Portage, Michigan. “We had proposed an ordinance for sprinklered occupancies four or five years ago, but it was preempted by the state’s construction code that said in part that municipalities may not have any ordinance that would tend to increase the cost of building,” reports Fred Byrnes, fire marshal. He adds that buildings three stories high must comply with NFPA 13R“But,” he notes, “we have 40 complexes that are two stories or lower, and none of them use the Uniform Building Code.”
  • Ventura, California. This community has a population of 97,000, and the majority of its structures are single-family homes. An ordinance requiring sprinklers in structures more than 5,000 square feet was passed in 1979. Buildings constructed after 1980 or those that have been expanded to 5,000 square feet or larger, including single-family residences, must be sprinklered. Fire Marshal Doug Carriger says his department currently is working toward getting that requirement down to “zero square feet.”


If the fire service does its part, residential sprinklers have a bright future despite the obstacles now being encountered in some states, say a majority of sprinkler proponents. At the minimum, they say fire departments must engage in a national campaign that includes at least the following major components:

  • Education. The support of the public can be won, Chief Coleman of Fullerton stresses. “We must educate consumers with regard to what sprinkler technology is all about. We didn’t do enough to convince them. Once
  • they realize how sprinklers can protect their children and personal property, they will demand them.”

Peoria (AZ) Fire Inspector Brown agrees: “People listen when shown how they can save dollars and cents and improve life safety.” He adds that comparison studies are included in the department’s educational/promotional program. This information and other pertinent data are acquired through an information-exchange program among fire marshals in the area.

In Florida, a coordinator at the fire college works with field offices throughout the state of Florida to acquaint home owners with the reasons they should invest in sprinklers. “We must increase public awareness,” stresses Nelson, “since 80 percent of all fires in the United States, including Florida, occur in residential occupancies.”

Unfortunately, some residential sprinkler advocates point out, the media do not give the same coverage to incidents in which the presence of sprinkler systems prevents fatalities as they do to incidents that claim lives because sprinklers are not present.

  • Cooperation. This term has various applications. In Cobb County, for example, it means—among other things—training personnel to run interference for builders so that they encounter a minimum of obstacles when installing sprinklers in their structures.

In some localities, it means working with local builders and home-owners associations, presenting slide programs at luncheon meetings of local service and business organizations— even the Garden Club. In communities such as Plano, Texas, it means being on the same side as building officials and gaining their support. “The building inspector must be your number one ally,” Chief Peterson emphasizes.

Winning over individuals and groups on a one-to-one basis is also a good way to work the political systems to advantage—another vital aspect of a winning campaign, sources say. In some areas, supportive state and federal legislation is needed before significant gains can be made. Cooperation, in other cases, has been extended to include networking with fire service and other officials of states (such as California and Arizona) that have some of the most advanced residential sprinkler laws. This type of cooperation should be extended even further.

In an article written for Fire International (Dec. 1990-Jan. 1991), Chief Stanley of Rhode Island states: “One of the main reasons for past failures in promoting residential sprinklers was our inability to communicate and work together even though our goals were the same. Meeting the challenges of the 1990s will require a united fire service and will require great teamwork on the part of all players.”

  • Planning, planning, planning. The consensus here is to take your time so that you can come up with a workable and effective plan. It could take anywhere from two to three years or longer to devise a viable plan. Its objectives should include policies for enforcement, inspection, reinspection, training personnel, and educating the public.

“I believe the most critical aspect of a viable sprinkler program is that the fire department must have total control,” asserts Lt. Grier. To him this entails having personnel with the abilities to approve plans and to conduct inspections and reinspections —including reading plans, verifying hydraulic calculations, and confirming that sprinklers have been installed properly.

“I do not want to see the smoke detector syndrome occur in our sprinkler division,” warns Lt. Grier. “Everyone jumped on the smoke detector bandwagon. We approved an ordinance mandating that they be installed, but we did not implement any public relations or educational programs. The result is that about one-third of the detectors installed have been inadequately maintained. This has been a failure of the local and national fire service. We dropped the ball and did not follow up …”

  • Resources. Many resources are available to help you plan and implement your programs. The Resource Box on page 54 lists some of them, many of which have been recommended by the departments represented in this article.

“In 25 years, sprinkler systems in homes will be as common as heating systems,” predicts Lt. Grier. His statement is based in part on an observation he shares with others in the fire service: A new wave is sweeping the fire sen-ice. It is based on the concept that the new emerging priority in the service is to prevent fires instead of suppress them. How prophetic these members of the fire service are will depend in great part on how you address today’s challenges.

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