Sprinkler Advocacy is Our Responsibility

By Billy Hayes

By now, most of you have seen the sprinkler demonstration that was conducted by the DC Fire & EMS at Gallaudet University during Fire Prevention Week where an unfortunate incident occurred including a firefighter receiving a minor burn injury. While much of the focus of that demonstration was on what went wrong, we also need to visit the message that we were trying to relay that day to the students and to the public. I'll come back to that at the end of this column so please keep reading.

In this column we will discuss Initiative 15: Advocacy must be strengthened for code enforcement and home fire sprinklers. While I have had this column in the hopper for quite some time, I felt releasing it the week of the ICC sprinkler vote in Baltimore would be timely and appropriate.

Before I get started, I want to state that I do not live in a sprinkled home. I wish I did. When I asked my real estate agent to help me identify homes that were sprinkled she said, "You're kidding right?" The point is there are not many out there for us to choose from — in some cases there are none at all. The rationale for me getting this out of the way first is that I have heard many opponents of sprinklers dwell on the point that even firefighters do not live in sprinkled homes. Well, that is weak. If there were an abundance of sprinkled homes to choose from, it might be a different story and add credibility to that argument. So drop that from your arsenal.

Regardless of today's vote, the fire service has a lot of education to conduct with the public and with itself when it comes to residential sprinklers. You can still ask individuals in the public how a fire sprinkler works and most will tell you they really aren't sure, while some still believe when one goes off they all go off (the Hollywood effect). So it is incumbent upon the fire service to own this responsibility and opportunity to educate.

Over my 20 year career, I've known many law enforcement officers, many of whom are good friends. I've asked them their thoughts on hand gun and firearm bills. I'm not sure I've met one that believes guns should be on the street to put in the hands of the criminals they may encounter. Most of them watch what is going on with legislation and they stay up to date on the emerging issues that may affect their jobs. But has the fire service embraced that same practice?

For instance, how many know that in Texas this year, Senate Bill 1410 was passed which bans local jurisdictions from requiring residential sprinkler systems in one- and two-family dwellings? The bill was initially introduced and died on the floor from lack of support, but was hidden in 1410 which was a licensing and plumbing bill and was passed without much noise. Texas is not the only state where this is occurring. I would suggest you check in your own state and become familiar with what is occurring on the legislative front.

Virginia is another state where the residential sprinkler debate is raging. The Virginia fire service is aggressively seeking legislation in favor of residential sprinklers after losing Firefighter Kyle Wilson in a Prince William County fire in 2007, and after four firefighters were trapped in a 2008 fire in Loudon County resulting in serious burns to one of them. However, the Homebuilders of Association of Virginia (HVA) is fighting the campaign out of fear of the installation costs that will be passed along to homeowners as well as the liability issue of people accidently breaking a sprinkler head while moving in or out. Give me a break!

Oh, it gets better. An actual quote by the Executive VP of the HVA says that after the introduction of smoke alarms, fire fatalities have been reduced by 58 percent, and with that, residential fire sprinklers will provide little additional benefits. And might I add that they believe it's not the lightweight construction that is the issue, it's the combustibles that people have in their homes so maybe the fire service should focus on that. Essentially, brothers and sisters of the fire service, money and liability seem to be more important than civilian or firefighter safety. The fact that civilians and firefighters are not dying in sprinkled structures seems to be irrelevant to this argument according to some homebuilders. Have we taken the time to fight this erroneous information by educating the public about the facts?

I recently taught a firefighter safety class and I had an individual who was a volunteer firefighter who served in the role of fire inspector ask me, "What good are sprinklers in the home?" He further went on to explain that if kitchen cabinets weren't built above ranges and stoves then we probably wouldn't have a problem. I almost felt bad for the guy because the other students attacked him, and at first I too was beside myself. However, as the individual was flooded with factual information, he was open and receptive and said he had just never had anyone explain it to him before. I then realized we are not doing a very good job at educating our own people. Especially when reports that a fire chief told his elected officials that when sprinkler ordinances are introduced, he will need fewer firefighters (that's a great way to get the IAFF on your side)!

So what does all of this have to do with firefighter safety? I will write about the code enforcement aspect of Initiative 15 in my next column because in reality they are two separate issues. However, I want to go back to my opening paragraph about the sprinkler demonstration we conducted in Washington, D.C. I would hope that you watch the entire video and not stop at the point where the Plexiglas drops down on the firefighters. Continue on and watch the next burn where the sprinkler head activates within a few seconds and the Plexiglas never has a chance to reach the temperature to melt because the fire was extinguished. Thankfully our firefighters were OK and escaped serious injury, but this was as much of a visual about firefighter safety as one can create. I've written several paragraphs on what one video says in just a few seconds.

In rural and volunteer communities where response times may be increased, wouldn't it be great to have that residential sprinkler head as the first volunteer on the scene to hold the fire in check until sufficient crews arrive?

Let's not fool ourselves. We will continue to fight fires for years to come and it will be beyond our lifetime (if ever) to see every residential property have sprinklers installed. However, if we continue to have classes at conferences and identify that new lightweight construction is a danger to civilian and firefighter safety, why shouldn't we be aggressive in modifying that danger? After all, if we are in the business of risk management, that should be in every aspect of our job and not just when the 911 call is made for us to respond. Residential sprinklers will and do save firefighters lives.

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