Across the pond in Wales (population three million), home fire sprinklers suffer the same homebuilder opposition that is prevalent in North America. Yet, an historic measure was signed into law in 2011 following unanimous vote by the Welsh Assembly to sprinkler the country's new homes starting next year. How did that happen?
NFPA recently interviewed Ronnie King, former chief fire officer in Wales and secretary of the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety & Rescue Group, which brings fire-related topics to the Parliament's attention. King discusses how the sprinkler measure was passed, how the opposition was addressed, and why sprinkler advocates need to get on the radar of their legislators.
NFPA: How did this requirement for sprinklering all new homes come to be?
This kicked off in 2007 by the efforts of Assembly Member Ann Jones. Fire sprinklers are a particular passion of hers. Before becoming a politician, she was in the fire service. She's been involved with dead children being pulled out of a burning homes five, six at a time and knew there was a solution to this. In 2007, she introduced a Legislative Competence Order, giving Wales competence to introduce its own legislation to ensure all newly built housing in Wales are fitted with automatic fire sprinklers. The Legislative Competence Order became a measure and was unanimously passed by the Welsh government in 2011. Jones got cross-party support from so many people.
Ann Jones wouldn't give up. She hounded people. She went into every legislative office of anyone who was doubtful. She'd give them a lecture on fire sprinklers. I was just as passionate. Her enthusiasm and belief was enough for the fire and rescue service to get behind her because she knew she wasn't going to lose this.
Where did your enthusiasm for fire sprinklers come from?
As a chief fire officer for 20 years, there were 150 deaths and 6,000 burns and injuries under my command. We have a solution that can stop these deaths and injuries from happening. Prior to the passage of the sprinkler measure, I went to two road shows the Welsh Assembly had organized. The homebuilders and the building-control authorities were there. They tried to monopolize the meeting by saying, "We'll be placed out of business. This measure is absolute nonsense. We got regulation after regulation on energy efficiency, insulation. Now you're adding another burden." I passionately told them my experience, about bringing children out of fires, sometimes as many as five.
How else did you and others address the opposition?
We went through a number of committee meetings with the water industry, homebuilders, fire officials, building-control authorities, anyone with a stake in this measure. When the Welsh water authority said it would be difficult managing water pressures, I said there is a place in England not dissimilar to Wales with high mountains, lots of reservoirs, lots of low-lying areas where water pressure isn’t consistent. And yet, they didn't have these problems when installing sprinklers. Ann Jones, a deputy chief officer from North Wales, and I worked together to answer every critical point that came up.
Now that the measure went through, homebuilders are having workshops and training sessions. They seem to be responding positively to the requirement. There's also lots of pilot studies occurring to see what the obstacles might be and how we can overcome them.
What about the public? Are they aware of how fire sprinklers will safeguard them at home?
People here don’t know much about sprinklers. There hasn’t been a good PR campaign saying to people that if you burn your toast, the sprinkler won’t flood your kitchen. The Wales government has adequately addressed these myths. There's need of a PR campaign.
Any advice you care to share that might assist North American sprinkler advocates in their push for sprinkler requirements?
There was a politician who said to me, "I don’t believe in sprinklers and can’t support them." There was a fire in her constituency where a family of six died in a single-family dwelling. I asked her to come to an All-Party meeting. She kept avoiding it. The fire occurred in her area. It’s going to be very embarrassing for her if she declined to even talk to people about the fire. We told her to give us a half hour and we can pull points together on how this tragedy could have been avoided. She came. I showed her slides, videos of fires. She completely came around.
What you have to do is build on an opportunity. You have to get a champion on board. When you have them, you have to grab them and talk to them. There's so much visual evidence around the world in support of fire sprinklers. It's frightening. All they tend to listen to are their civil servants, who tell them sprinklers are not cost-beneficial. You need passionate people in politics who will fight this.
Find a celebrity who's had an experience of losing a child or family member to fire, who can get something done, who can say, "There is a solution to this." They can get to the people, the people will buy in, and the politicians will want to be popular, so they can change this. Public opinion is always powerful, isn't it?
Interview conducted, edited, and condensed by Fred Durso, Jr., communications manager for NFPA's Fire Sprinkler Initiative.