Debunking fire sprinkler myths helps spotlight the power of this protection
The fire service must walk the walk in our support of residential sprinklers
Picture yourself in each of the following three scenarios, all the while considering what matters most to you in life.
- Scenario 1: The unthinkable happens. A pot of food left of the stove has boiled down to a greasy smoky fire. The smoke alarm wakes you up (and also notifies the fire department), and before you can figure out what’s going on, a single residential sprinkler head activates, holding the fire at bay. You get your family and pets out and call 911. The fire department arrives, mops up the fire, turns off the sprinkler system and restores the sprinkler head, helps you start the de-watering process, and you call your insurance company. You’re out of your house for about 3 weeks while the insurance company cleans up the fire and water damage and gets you back in your home.
- Scenario 2: Now picture the same fire with without the sprinklers. A smoke alarm alerts you, your family and your pets of the fire, and you have just enough time to get out before the fire consumes the kitchen. You call 911 and the fire department is able to save part of the house. You’re out of your house for about 4 months while the insurance company rebuilds.
- Scenario 3: Lastly, picture it all again, this time without the comprehensive protection. The unattended food on the stove ignites a fire that first burns the cabinets, then the kitchen and ultimately the entire house. You didn’t receive any notice, you didn’t receive any help – you never knew any of this, though. You couldn’t because you’re dead. You, your family, your pets – all dead. You didn’t have a chance.
None of these scenarios are hyperbole or sensationalism in any way. I’ve seen each play out in my own community and across the country for as long as I’ve been a member of the fire service.
While none of the scenarios is desirable, it’s clear which one allows for the best chance of survival and property protection. What are you doing to protect yourself, your family and pets, and your belongings? Could you do more?
Tragedy and testament
One particular 2012 fire in Glenarden, Maryland, will stay with me forever, not only because I wish we could have done more but also because of the needless loss of a father and three of his daughters. The Price family will forever live in my mind – and I hope yours.
Prince George’s County was the first county in the United States to require the trifecta of smoke alarms, carbon monoxide detectors and residential sprinklers in all residential construction built after 1992 (1987 for smoke alarms). None of this applied to the Price family, as their home was older. The home did have smoke alarms, but the family had reportedly taken the batteries out because of the “constant chirping.”
The fire resulted in both tragedy and a testament that fire prevention messages do work. Eight-year-old Tamia Price and her mother survived this fire; Tamia’s dad and three siblings perished. Tamia shared that she remembered what firefighters – our firefighters – told her when they came to her school: She made sure she had a second way out and to close the door to her room. She explained how when she realized that there was a fire, she grabbed her mom, closed the door to the room they were in, and went to the window where neighbors helped pull her and her mom out of the burning home. Her father got out as well but went back inside to rescue his other three kids and, ultimately, none of them survived.
We were talking the talk, and Tamia listened, walking the walk and saving two lives.
It was a very difficult and political fight to get the sprinkler legislation, and one of the compromises at the time was to exempt these older homes. I wish we could have found a way to overcome that.
Fire sprinkler illusions
We could spend an entire series on the importance of residential sprinklers, but here, I want to focus first on the illusion of fire sprinklers crafted by the anti-sprinkler lobby. The anti-sprinkler folks are mostly connected to the building industry, although there are also some within our own ranks who don’t do us any favors when it comes to advocating for improved safety within our communities.
Here’s a few of the illusions I’ve personally dealt with:
- “If one head activates, they all activate – you will ruin the entire home.” In a deluge system designed that way, sure), but this does not occur in residential NFPA 13D systems. Only enough heads necessary to reduce the heat, actually flow water – usually one or two heads.
- “The cost is prohibitive! Most homeowners can’t afford this.” The true installation cost in new construction is less that the amount that most people will pay for their granite or quartz countertops. New construction costs will average between $1.50 and $2.00 per square foot, so a 2,000 square-foot home will cost about $4,000. Retrofit costs run around $4.50 per square foot.
- “Most fire deaths are happening in older homes, so sprinkler requirements for new homes don’t help there. This is where smoke alarms save lives.” They’re right, the absence of sprinklers doesn’t help – that’s why we need to advocate for retrofitting where it makes sense. The data is irrefutable. Your chances of survival increase by nearly 90% where sprinklers are installed. Bottom line: Smoke alarms give you advance warning, sprinklers give you enough time to get out.
- “You don’t want those ugly things hanging down from your ceiling.” Residential sprinkler heads today are recessed with a cover that looks like any other light or electric cover already on your ceiling or walls.
- “The construction trade-offs have created stronger, more structurally stable buildings that don’t require sprinklers.” First, the notion that sprinklers aren’t needed is absurd. The whole concept of sprinkler protection is to both provide extra time for occupants to get out and to limit fire damage. Second, under “normal” conditions, the construction trade-offs have provided stronger, less expensive and more stable construction possible. However, on fire is NOT a normal condition, and the trade-offs are not granted under the presumption the building is on fire. Under fire, these construction trade-offs create firefighter traps that are significantly less stable, especially in the early stages of firefighting operations.
Now, let’s use data to drive home our case.
The power of residential sprinklers
I mentioned the Prince George’s County experience and can personally attest to the first 20 years of that mandate. In those 20 years, there were over 600 investigated fires in sprinkler-protected homes. In EVERY case where there was a properly installed, functioning and maintained sprinkler system, there we ZERO deaths reported. (There were three deaths at sprinkler-protected properties: One was a shooting-homicide covered up by a fire that the sprinkler extinguished; one was in a garage where sprinklers were not required; and one was in an apartment where the system was frozen – not properly maintained). During the same 20 years, there were over 3,000 other fires investigated in residential structures that were NOT protected by sprinklers – incidents that resulted in 69 fire fatalities.
The National Fire Sprinkler Association (NFSA) is our primary industry advocate when it comes to working with the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) and related organizations to advance residential sprinkler coverage. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) is our primary industry partner for developing and implementing codes nationally.
In October 2021, the NFPA released a report on the fire sprinkler experience in the United States. The report provides not only key talking points but also the hard data that fully supports the installation of residential sprinklers. Here are some highlights:
- Sprinklers reduce the impact of fires. Compared to reported fires in properties with no automatic extinguishing systems (AES), when sprinklers were present, the civilian fire death and injury rates per fire were 89% and 27% lower, respectively. The rate of firefighter injuries per fire was 60% lower.
- Most structure fires and fire deaths occurred in homes, but sprinklers were found in only 7% of all home fires.
- From 2015 to 2019, sprinklers operated in 92% of fires large enough to activate sprinklers and were effective at controlling the fire in 96% of the incidents in which they operated.
- The most common reason that sprinklers failed to operate was the system being shut off at some point before the fire.
I lived the sprinkler experience and dealt with many of the purported illusions believed (or at least advanced) by some in the building industry. I’ve learned that a properly installed NFPA 13D system is not only relatively inexpensive, but it is indeed lifesaving and loss-reducing.
Retrofit options: Walking the walk
We have a lot of work to do for residential sprinklers to become more mainstream. Only Maryland and California have statewide mandatory residential sprinkler requirements for new construction. The District of Columbia and about 400 other municipalities and local ordinances around other states also require residential sprinklers to various degrees. It has been my experience, however, that the anti-sprinkler lobby is continuously fighting to overturn those ordinances and has historically adamantly opposed new fire sprinkler proposals. The NFSA is working with the NAHB to save lives and reduce property damage through sprinklers, but this is a heavy lift.
In construction of my own home in Florida, where there is no statewide nor local ordinance requiring residential sprinklers in single-family homes (only multi-family over four floors), my builder did not offer sprinklers and refused to allow me to install sprinklers or even to lay static piping in the attic before we owned the home. I spoke with company management and asked several times, even offering to showcase how easy it could be, but they had no interest. I was even threatened with trespass if I tried to install pipes in advance.
Working with the NFSA, I got in touch with Wayne Automatic Fire Sprinklers Inc. (Wayne), which sent a team to evaluate the house. Wayne too had no luck trying to convince the builder to allow them to start work.
We had 2 years of construction (delayed due to COVID), so once we took occupancy, Wayne’s crew was ready with all the permits and necessary municipal flow information to design and install our NFPA 13D system. While we were concerned about the dust and debris of a retrofit installation, it was our only option since the builder had been so anti-sprinkler early in the process. To our delight, when the crew left each day, we barely knew they had been there. While it was not “dust-free” (no construction project will be), their diligence meant there was much less of a debris problem that we anticipated. Fortunately, our municipal system had a static pressure of 50 psi and already has backflow preventers installed on each property.
I won’t characterize the permitting or installation process as painless or flawless, but the professional sprinkler installation company was able to overcome all obstacles and provide a system that meets all the requirements of NFPA 13D.
Fire Prevention Week: A catalyst for action
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that we become desensitized to the constant drumbeat of safety messages. I get it, we’re inundated with rule this and rule that. But isn’t it OUR responsibility to preach those safety messages? Isn’t it OUR job to work toward safer communities for firefighters and the communities we serve? Of course it is. And there are several groups that give us the tools we need to succeed in these efforts.
The NFPA, for one, provides a plethora of materials for the national Fire Prevention Week, this year focusing on the message, “Cooking Safety Starts with YOU. Pay Attention to Fire Prevention.” The campaign highlights cooking fires – the top cause of residential fires in the United States. I strongly encourage each of you to do your part to spread the message. It is important that we both talk the talk and walk the walk – just like we did for Tamia, and Tamia was able to do for her and her mom.
Use this opportunity to not only refresh your message about the leading cause of home fires but also to refresh your message about the advantages of residential fire sprinklers. “Pay Attention to Fire Prevention.” OUR lives depend on it, too!