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Not every building that should have sprinklers does

Some jurisdictions allow older structures to be ‘grandfathered’ in on old building- and fire-code rules

We all know how effective properly installed, routinely maintained, and regularly inspected and tested fire sprinklers can be for protecting building occupants and content, responding firefighters, and structural members. Data available from both the National Fire Protection Association and the U.S. Fire Administration reflect this effectiveness in terms of limiting fire-related deaths and property loss in commercial and residential occupancies.

The well-documented safety margin provided by fire sprinklers has led to their inclusion in the model building/fire codes adopted by many state and local jurisdictions across the country.

It’s important to understand, however, that while many localities have adopted sprinkler requirements before and after they were included in the model codes, many others have not. Even in jurisdictions that have adopted the model codes without modification, they often apply only to new construction and usually do not include a requirement to retrofit older buildings with sprinklers and other safety enhancements.

As this story demonstrates, absent retrofitting provisions to provide fire sprinklers in existing structures, fire departments will continue experiencing fires, including major ones, in older buildings.

For this reason, and even if we were able to someday ensure the presence of fire sprinklers in every structure, it’s critical to consider community risk reduction holistically through education, enforcement and engineering.

With national Fire Prevention Week still fresh in our minds, we must redouble our efforts to provide fire- and life-safety education through schools and other channels, enforce robust fire-prevention codes and standards wherever possible, and ensure the presence of working smoke alarms in every home.

Stay safe!

Adam K. Thiel is the fire commissioner and director of the Office of Emergency Management in the city of Philadelphia. Thiel previously served as a fire chief in the National Capital Region and as a state fire director for the Commonwealth of Virginia. Thiel’s operational experience includes serving with distinction in four states as a chief officer, incident commander, company officer, hazardous materials team leader, paramedic, technical rescuer, structural/wildland firefighter and rescue diver. He also directly participated in response and recovery efforts for several major disasters, including the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Tropical Storm Gaston and Hurricane Isabel.

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