In May, a two-year-old girl died in a home fire outside Syracuse, New York. Online photographs of the neighborhood depict a suburban setting like so many across the country: streets lined with recently built homes, manicured lawns, young families enjoying a beautiful spring day. According to news accounts, the girl’s mother was outside watching her four-year-old son play with neighborhood kids when the fire broke out. The local fire chief attributed the blaze to food left unattended on a stovetop.
The story bothers me for a number of reasons. One reason is that as a mother I spent many days doing exactly the same thing when my kids were young, never thinking much about the possibility of a fire in my home. If I was standing right in front of my house when a fire broke out, I would have thought I could get my child out safely. But that was before I came to work at NFPA.
It also bothers me because the unsprinklered home was built in 2013, four years after every model code in the country included the requirement that all new one- and two-family homes be built with fire sprinklers. Despite its inclusion in model codes, the provision has been adopted by only two states—California and Maryland. The state of New York has considered, but not adopted, more recent editions of the code, and states that have moved to newer codes have amended out the sprinkler provision.
This tragedy happened about a week before NFPA hosted approximately 80 people from across the country at the Fire Sprinkler Initiative—Bringing Safety Home Summit. It was a somber reminder of why we were all in the room.
We were there to strategize about how to refute some of the misconceptions that exist about home fire sprinklers and about new homes, including the myth that new homes don’t burn. Yes, they do. Today’s homes are built using lightweight construction, are designed with more open space through which fire travels quicker, and are filled with synthetic materials that burn faster. There’s the myth that smoke alarms are enough. While smoke alarms are one of the most important fire safety devices of our time, they do not begin to extinguish a fire, giving families extra time to escape and creating a safer environment for first responders. And there’s the myth that home fire sprinklers are too expensive. No, they are not. One summit speaker, a builder named Russ Davis, described a 140-home development he just built in South Carolina, where every home was sprinklered for less than $2,000 per unit, or a little more than $1 per square foot.
I was encouraged that the summit included many people who had not been to the event before. These people are learning about the tremendous resources that exist to combat sprinkler myths; they’re also hearing about sprinkler success stories and they’re seeing the numbers of fire sprinkler advocates grow each year.
Most importantly, the attendees were reminded of the two-year-old girl from that suburban neighborhood in upstate New York. Like me, they may wonder how many others have suffered losses that could have been prevented if people had lived in sprinklered homes. And like me, they may wonder how many more people will be killed or injured before we finish what we started—getting home fire sprinklers in every new one- and two-family home in this country.