IN THE LATE 1970s, Jeff LaFlam bought his first home when he was just 19 years old. Two years later, fire destroyed his big purchase; his housemate had placed a space heater too close to a pile of clothes. “I came home one day and found the house fully engulfed in flames,” recalls LaFlam, fire marshal of the Northshore Fire Department in Washington, of the day he lost his home. “The fire department was there with chainsaws, making holes in the roof.” There were no deaths or injuries, but LaFlam couldn’t salvage any of his personal belongings.
During his nearly 30-year career in the fire service, LaFlam has become equally intimate with many other home fires, including some with far more devastating outcomes than his own. On a mission to end these destructive and unnecessary fires, he has joined a group of like-minded safety crusaders in Washington State. Formed in 2009, the Washington Fire Sprinkler Coalition was the first of its kind in the U.S. and is now seen as a model for states developing their own alliances of sprinkler advocates. LaFlam has been a member of the coalition since the group’s inception—it now exceeds 300 people—and became chair this year.
“I make our coalition meetings very inclusive,” says LaFlam, 56. “We have made direct contact with people from various groups and invite them to meetings. That’s how we were able to get our local burn center nurses involved, as well as a representative from the local chapter of the National Association of Home Builders.”
Inviting homebuilders to the table might sound controversial—the group has been a vocal opponent of sprinkler requirements across the country—but LaFlam says he has seen its advantages. “I’d rather have some open discussions and at least try to solve the opposition’s issues,” he says. “If nothing else, we can legitimately say we invited homebuilders to the table, sat down with them, and had open discussions. Otherwise, you have two armed camps.”
The benefits of having a coordinated voice of sprinkler advocates is also evident in Washington. Following the initial inclusion of the residential sprinkler requirement in the 2009 International Residential Code (IRC), LaFlam says sprinkler opponents initiated a push to prevent its incorporation into the state building code. The coalition organized a series of speakers from the group to present on the importance of sprinklers to the State Building Code Council (SBCC), which establishes building code requirements in the state of Washington. LaFlam credits these presentations will helping to convince SBCC members to place the sprinkler provision in the building code’s annex, giving local jurisdictions the ability to adopt the requirements.
Keeping sprinkler naysayers on their toes, LaFlam was recently appointed to the IRC Technical Advisory Group (TAG), which provides recommendations to the SBCC. “I’ve been to TAG meetings, and I didn’t feel there were any [TAG] members challenging false statements that were being made as part of the sprinkler discussion,” he says. “One builder got up and said there had never been a fire death in Washington State in a home built since 1985. Now, we are certainly able to find instances where there had been fire deaths in these homes, but nobody on the TAG said anything. That’s going to be my role—cut through those inflammatory statements.”
With the Washington coalition’s eyes set on the 2015 state building code, LaFlam and others are focusing on getting sprinkler requirements adopted in new homes. “I’m piecing together a working group to analyze opponent arguments and how we can effectively respond to them,” he says. “This coalition’s done some good things, and we continue making progress.”