A few recent home fires in the news got my attention. The most recent occurred on January 31 in Novi, Michigan, that killed five people ranging in age from 16 to 23. My research indicates the home was built between 1995 and 1999. On December 17, 2015, a fire killed a father and son in Lower Macungie Township, Pennsylvania, in a home built in 1998. Three days earlier, a woman perished in a home fire in Logan-Rogersville, Missouri, in a home built in 1994. (These are just the headlines I've noticed.) In all incidents, fire departments responded within minutes of being dispatched.
We often hear from homebuilders, Realtors, politicians, and others that fire sprinklers should not be required in new homes since new homes are safer than old homes. They claim that fire deaths and injuries most often occur in older homes. They imply that simply living in a new home reduces your chances of being killed or injured in a home fire over living in an old home. If this is true, my first question is as follows: When does a new home become an old home?
Are homes built in the ’90s considered to be old homes today? Obviously, they were considered new homes about 20 years ago. When they were constructed and sold, I am sure they were considered safer than those older homes, built 20 years prior in the ’70s. And when those homes were built in the '70’s, they were undoubtedly touted as being safer than those older homes erected back in the ’50s. More importantly, will new homes built today be considered old homes 20 years from now? Will any new home built today catch fire 20 years in the future, possibly resulting in the death of a woman, a father and son, or five young people? If so, which ones?
NFPA 13D, Installation of Sprinkler Systems in One-and-Two-Family Dwellings and Manufactured Homes, was first adopted in 1975 and has gone through a series of revisions since then. Home fire sprinklers were certainly available in the 1990s (when the aforementioned homes that recently caught fire were built) but were not code-required in most communities. Nor were they understood or demanded by many consumers. Nor did the majority of the fire service—those of us considered suppression guys—even care.
The incidents I’ve mentioned are but few examples of fire fatalities. What about other fire fatalities in “newer” homes? What about fire injuries occurring in these homes? How many people—both civilians and firefighters—would be alive, physically uninjured, and psychologically unscarred today had “new homes” back then been equipped with home fire sprinklers? It’s too late for those people.
It is not too late for our future generation. How many lives can be saved, injuries prevented, and psychological scars avoided if we work together to improve our fire suppression delivery model by ensuring fire sprinklers are installed in today’s new homes before they become “dangerously old” (whenever that supposedly happens)?
This post was written by Rick Ennis, fire chief for the City of Cape Girardeau in Missouri and chair of the Missouri Fire Sprinkler Coalition. Read all of Ennis' blog posts written for NFPA's Fire Sprinkler Initiative.