NFPA's Fire Sprinkler Initiative team was recently introduced to Joe Thomas, a Missouri-based photographer who installed fire sprinklers in his new home. We spoke with him about his decision, installation costs, and what it has been like living with this technology.
NFPA: What led to your decision to fire sprinkler your home?
When I was in my early 20s, I experienced a house fire. My family called me. I was at my friend's house at the time. As my family tells it, my sister woke up and alerted my dad. He went to the second story and came down in a panic. "The house is on fire. Get out!" My sister and he left the house. My mom was inside the house collecting photos off the walls, placing them outside and going back into the home. The fire department finally gave her a lecture: go back inside, and you'll go to jail. They were all standing outside in their nightgowns outside my neighbor's house watching the house burn. That's when I arrived. It was something else to see my dad, a Vietnam vet, shaking and crying from the event.
How did you react to what you were seeing?
I wasn't really in shock because the house was still standing [after the fire]. The fire was mainly contained to the second story, but there was extensive water damage throughout. The fire just wasn't that day. It lasted. It wasn't just that day or first week as we went through stuff and itemized them for insurance. It was six months down the road and we realized we don't have Christmas ornaments anymore. That was so hard for my mother because all of the ornaments that my siblings made over the years were special to her and were now gone. The fire is something you carry with you.
Insurance eventually put us into a rental. That was crazy because there were no linens, no couch, no pots and pans, nothing. It was a scramble to find a new house to live in. We were there for two months before my parents found a house within their price range.
Five years ago, when you moved to Rogersville, Missouri, with your wife and two kids, you decided to fire sprinkler your new home. How did you hear about this technology?
I became an EMT and was around fire service guys all the time. I’m reading their paraphernalia and literature [that included information on home fire sprinklers]. Also, at a home show in Kansas City, there was a company there [promoting fire sprinklers]. Moving here, we decided to look into them.
What solidified your decision to install fire sprinklers?
This is the house we’re going to raise our children in. Talking with the designer of the home, he said they’ll be using structurally engineered floor joists. At the time, I said, we need fire sprinklers. I don't think people realize how quickly new homes burn. My wife questioned the installation. We’re only five miles from our nearest fire station. However, if that crew is out on a call, they have to bring in somebody else, someone farther away. She eventually agreed.
We felt [installation] was going to be expensive. Talking with our contractor, he didn’t know a lot about them, and he builds custom homes. He then suggested we go meet with the installer and talk to them about it. When we saw the price tag, we said that's not really expensive at all. [The installation cost at Thomas' 4,500-square-foot home was approximately $5,000, or just over $1 per sprinklered square foot.] No matter what your budget is for your home, an extra $5,000 is really not that expensive.
Do guests notice the fire sprinklers, or do you point them out to people?
I do point them out because I’m an advocate for them. They'll ask me, "What are the white dots on the ceiling?" People are very curious about it. Others don't even notice them. They blend in so well with the ceiling that you can't tell the sprinklers are there, unless you’re looking at it.
Has it given you more peace of mind living in a sprinklered home?
Homeowners have home security systems. You worry about your home, you worry about your contents, and you worry about your family. This is one less thing for you to have to worry about. This is just a no-brainer.
Interview conducted and edited by Fred Durso, Jr., communications manager for NFPA's Fire Sprinkler Initiative. Please contact NFPA's Fire Sprinkler Initiative team if considering fire sprinklering your new home.