The following was written by Lorraine Carli, NFPA vice president of Outreach and Advocacy:
Sprinklers have been around for more than 100 years. They are effective and affordable and have been included in all model building codes since 2009. They have been the focus of the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition’s education work for 20 years.
So why are we still not seeing the widespread use of this proven technology?
Perhaps the biggest reason is the clout of the homebuilding industry, the same industry that fought smoke alarms and other safety devices in homes by saying they would thwart housing sales and deter people from buying new homes. There have been more than 40 million single-family homes built in the United States since 1977, and more than four million built since the sprinkler requirement was included in model building codes. Imagine how many lives would be better protected from fire if all of those homes had been built with sprinklers.
Although there has been a great deal of progress, it continues to be an enormous challenge to reach the masses with this level of safety. That effort has been going on since 1973, when the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control delivered its final report to the President of the United States on the country’s fire problem. The report, “America Burning,” was viewed as a seminal moment in addressing fires in the modern era. It contained far-ranging recommendations for local, state, and national efforts to reduce loss of life and property. From the report came the creation of the U.S. Fire Administration, the National Fire Academy, federal grant programs, and the endorsement of sustained efforts to prevent fires through codes and standards, research, fire prevention, and smoke alarms. This was also the time that smoke alarms were beginning to enter the market for homes, and we know they have proved to be a major contributor to saving lives ever since.
Included in “America Burning” was a discussion on fire sprinklers. The authors touted the benefits of automatic extinguishing systems, noting that sprinklers combined with detection offered a much greater level of protection for lives and property. For use in homes, they noted, sprinklers had to be cheap and aesthetically acceptable.
All of that has happened. Home fire sprinklers are affordable; studies have found the average installation cost is $1.35 per sprinklered square foot. In areas where they’re required, the cost can be even lower. They are aesthetically pleasing and can be flush-mounted, matching the ceiling or decor colors. You hardly know they’re there.
A recent series of news stories by ProPublica, an public-interest investigative journalism organization, chronicled the housing industry’s campaign to prohibit sprinkler requirements in at least 25 states—an unprecedented move to bypass the code process that has served the public good for decades. The approach was simple: go directly to legislative action, in many instances, and spend money to ensure sprinklers aren’t allowed. ProPublica’s reporting cited information from the National Institute on Money in State Politics that said the housing industry spent more than $517 million in state politics over the last decade. It’s hard to compete with that.
While it’s true that we’re being outspent, we should not be out-motivated. The fire service, for instance, has always been the leading champion of fire safety and a consistent, respected voice for prevention. But that voice has been less consistent regarding home sprinklers, and at a time when aggressive advocacy and education are needed most. I’m not sure if it’s a lack of understanding about the value of home fire sprinklers, a bit of fatigue in a long fight, or something else. But it surfaces in places where you don’t expect it. A city fire marshal recently expressed support for removing the fire sprinkler requirement from the next edition of the model residential code, saying the fire service doesn’t support home sprinklers. As evidence, he offered the fact that many in the fire service, as well as other public officials, don’t have sprinklers in their own homes. That is misguided logic. It’s like saying the automotive industry should not have added seatbelts to cars because Henry Ford didn’t have them in his Model T. This isn’t about everyone who supports sprinklers retrofitting their homes; it’s about building safer homes for generations to come.
That same fire marshal also said the number of residential fires has not risen to an unacceptable risk. Over the 40 years that those 40 million single-family homes were built, there were 120,905 civilian deaths and 495,610 civilian injuries in fires in one- and two-family homes. Over that period, 678 firefighters were killed in fires in one- and two-family homes. Today, the majority of fire-related civilian and firefighter deaths and injuries occur in home fires. This is happening at a time when fires in new homes—a result of building materials, home design, and the fuel load inside homes—are reaching flashover and leading to structural collapse faster than ever before. It is happening as we learn more about the cancer toll on firefighters exposed to toxins in fires. Is this acceptable risk? No, it is not.
Since 2009, model codes have identified sprinklers as the minimum level of safety in new one- and two-family homes. It is time to recommit to the notion that civilians and firefighters need not die in home fires. An affordable, reliable solution exists that will have an impact for generations to come. With a unified voice we can make home fire sprinklers as common as smoke alarms, and we can save lives.
This commentary originally appeared in the special sprinkler issue of NFPA Journal. Visit the Journal site for additional articles from the issue.