Moved by a recent story of a teen and her two parents dying in a home fire, one of the readers of this blog felt compelled to respond. The following commentary is from David Scott, a fire investigator and former police officer:
I have just finished reading your article on the fire incident that kept Fire Chief Maltby awake all night and I totally understand how he feels. This issue of sprinklers is a 'no-brainer' as far as I'm concerned. The problem is getting politicians on board, and that has been a decades-old problem. I, too, have many sleepless nights over the senseless deaths and injuries of fire victims, and the chief's comments struck a cord.
I was a licensed property appraiser from 1969-1999 and worked on residential, industrial, commercial, and institutional construction, so I am familiar with all types of properties. I became a police officer in 1974 and continued there until 1984 when I transferred into the Office of the Fire Marshal's investigation unit. I retired from the public service in 1999 and went into private sector fire investigation until this day. I have been around long enough to see the development and progression of fire investigation and fire safety issues. There is no simple format to create changes to the building code or fire code of any jurisdiction.
My work has always been in the province of Ontario, where Maltby also lives and worked. The Office of the Fire Marshal (OFM) was tasked with training the fire service and as such, it was always stressed that the fire and building codes were then created and updated directly as the result of the fire causes reported by the fire service. We stressed the need for accurate and thorough investigations in order to facilitate amendments to address current shortfalls in these codes. I was introduced to this process while still on the police force and conducting joint investigations with OFM investigators into fire deaths, explosions, and suspected arsons.
In January 1984, while serving in a remote northern community, I was called out in the middle of the night for a double fatality fire in an apartment building to commence a police investigation. The fire was in a 3-story, wood-framed apartment building, and the fire spread so rapidly that firefighters were not able to enter upon their arrival. Several tenants escaped and several were rescued by firefighters using ladders up to the upper windows. Unfortunately, a young mother and her eight-year-old son perished in the fire. I was able to establish that the fire originated in the bottom floor apartment as the result of careless smoking, and the tenant had tried to remove a smoldering couch out his door to a fire door immediately outside his unit. This resulted in the couch getting jammed in his doorway and the fire escape doorway. With the introduction of the fresh air, the couch erupted into flames.
The fire raced up the highly combustible stairwells and all the way to the top floor within a few minutes, trapping numerous tenants in their units. The Chief Coroner of Ontario ordered a coroner's inquest into the deaths, and I met with him and the Ontario fire marshal prior to the inquest. They explained that they were attempting to implement a major revision of the Ontario fire and building codes but were meeting with resistance from government. The proposed revision was to require the use of fire-rated gypsum board and metal fire doors in all multi-occupancy buildings to prevent tragedies such as this fire. The inquest was held in March and the coroner's jury came back with exactly the recommendations we had hoped for. The 1984 'retrofit' amendments to the codes were enacted. It was also extended to the residential building code for the use of gypsum board for interior finishes.
We all know how valuable this change was in minimizing fire spread and for life safety. It took years and many lives lost to get these simple amendments in place, but they were so effective once implemented. Unfortunately, technology advances faster than our codes, and the plastics-and-foams era began resulting in occupancies filled with solidified hydrocarbon fuels. Fires became faster and more toxic, resulting in another increase if deaths, injuries, and property loss. Our field pushed for the mandatory implementation of smoke and carbon monoxide detection devices in all occupancies and again, after many years and unnecessary deaths, they were finally implemented. They have helped immensely in the loss of lives and property damage, but not enough when we factor in the reduced escape time factor created by the plastics and foams fuels now in our homes.
Several years ago I investigated a fire in a summer home where the owner had stored bags of wood pellets in the basement shelves without realizing he was blocking an electric baseboard heater with these bags. The bags ignited during the winter and upon their return in the spring they discovered there had been a fire in the basement that appeared to have self extinguished. The investigation revealed that the point of origin was where the bags had covered the heater and had reached the open flame stage. The saving grace was that there was a copper water line suspended from the ceiling joist directly over the origin. The initial fire softened the soldered joint in the pipe and created a sprinkler effect that extinguished the fire before it moved beyond the shelf unit, resulting in a $10,000 loss instead of a half-million-dollar loss.
I have since been convinced that every living unit should have fire sprinklers. That fire demonstrated to me that not only will sprinklers absolutely minimize property damage and save lives but will also permit effective identification of life safety hazards in those well-preserved fire scenes.
It is obvious to me that we are witnessing history repeat itself, with politicians burying their heads in the sand to life safety issues until an unacceptable number of lives are lost. Unprotected, "lightweight construction" building materials and other hazards in today's homes have only made this issue more pressing as it now creates a real and serious threat to life for all of our firefighters.
It absolutely astounds me why politicians can't see the big picture.
Is your local politician aware of your region's home fire problem and the problem's solution, home fire sprinklers? If not, please alert them. Whether you live in the U.S. or Canada, find out who represents your area, call them, and inform them of your concern for today's home fire deaths and injuries.