Published on October 1, 2016.

How we arrived at the Final Frontier

A brief history of the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition and its focus on "the most pressing fire issue of our time"

THIS SPECIAL ISSUE of NFPA Journal commemorates the 20th anniversary of the founding of the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition, of which NFPA has been a key member. Over the past two decades, the coalition has been a central force in the effort to educate stakeholders on the value of sprinkler installation in new one- and two-family homes nationwide.

As HFSC reminded us recently on its website, 20 years ago there were just a few U.S. and Canadian fire departments that promoted the life-saving benefits of fire sprinklers in new homes. While many members of the fire service were aware of home fire sprinklers, sprinkler education materials were limited and most fire safety education programs focused on smoke alarms and escape plans. Thanks to movies and television shows featuring fire sprinklers all activating at once, the thought of installing sprinklers in homes did not appeal to homebuyers.

But for decades, fire data had proved that people were dying at the highest rates where they felt safest: in their own homes. The challenge of educating consumers about the life-saving benefits of home fire sprinklers needed a strong and unified voice. Finding that voice required the vision, commitment, and willingness of three organizations to come together, forget their differences, and work collaboratively.

A COALITION IS BORN

In the spring of 1996, after other efforts to create a collective home fire sprinkler focus faded, leaders of the American Fire Sprinkler Association (AFSA) and the National Fire Sprinkler Association (NFSA) approached NFPA to discuss how this could finally be achieved. While all three organizations embraced home fire sprinkler awareness within their outreach endeavors, each had its own niche and perspective and none was able to focus solely on this essential public safety topic. AFSA and NFSA saw the need and the opportunity, and both recognized it would be a stronger effort if it were carried out collaboratively. NFPA welcomed their ideas and the prospect of joining forces to give home fire sprinklers the attention they deserved.

“From day one, all of the founding members put aside any political and philosophical differences to focus on the task of developing the best home fire sprinkler educational material we could,” says Gary Keith, who served as HFSC’s president during his tenure at NFPA and now serves on HFSC’s board as FM Global’s vice president for engineering standards. “We knew we were ahead of where the model codes were on home fire sprinklers, but that only made us more determined to sharpen our educational message and build support across all interest groups.”

In short order, the three organizations unified to create a coalition that would focus exclusively on increasing and improving public education about this life-saving technology. The reaction was positive, and the fledgling HFSC planted the flag as a non-profit and non-commercial home fire sprinkler education group.

Early on, the coalition carried out pilot programs in Connecticut, Illinois, Oregon, Arizona, and Canada, working with fire service organizations on consumer sprinkler education. That initial alliance was successful and turned out to be prophetic. Today, the fire service is HFSC’s most important partner in delivering quality grassroots awareness and education programs in every state and in Canada. “While HFSC successfully developed targeted materials for many audiences, we realized that the fire service needed to be our primary partner,” Keith recalls. “When consumers want information about home fire sprinklers, the local fire department is their most trusted source. HFSC has made sure that fire departments have what they need to accurately address any questions they receive.”

Map of all the states in the US with a home fire sprinkler coalition

NFPA's Fire Sprinkler Initiative, or FSI, offers an advocacy complement to the educational efforts of the HFSC. So far, FSI-backed home fire sprinkler coalitions have been formed in 29 states.

POWER OF COLLABORATION

HFSC has evolved from its founders’ modest launch. Today it is guided by an active, dedicated, all-volunteer Board of Directors that represents broad public safety concerns. “The formation of HFSC proved that organizations that sometimes have competing interests can come together to promote common goals,” says AFSA President Steve Muncy. This desire and ability to put mission ahead of individual issues remains one of HFSC’s enduring strengths.

“At the first meeting I attended 10 years ago, I was so impressed with the commitment and depth of the board,” says Lorraine Carli, HFSC’s president and NFPA’s vice president of outreach and advocacy. “Everyone around the table understands the challenges, the objectives and the strategies. Most important, each board member understands and respects the power of collaboration.”

Another asset is HFSC’s independence. The founders determined early on that the coalition would leave product promotion to the industry and focus instead on communicating about the value of sprinkler technology and the need for more home installations as a life-safety strategy. Being neutral has benefitted HFSC in a number of ways, contributing to the coalition’s credibility across an array of audiences and helping it to become a powerful and effective national media source.

“The birth of HFSC in 1996 signaled the beginning of the first residential fire sprinkler educational effort targeted specifically at the general public,” says Jim Dalton, NFSA’s Washington/Congressional liaison and its representative on the HFSC Board until 2009. He remains proud of the coalition’s track record. “HFSC has steadfastly stuck to its original objective of ensuring that families are aware of and knowledgeable about the life-saving and property-preservation advantages of fire sprinkler–protected homes. Long-range success will depend on the ability to continue this most important effort.”

Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition Founders standing in front of a sprinkler demo booth.

To commemorate its 20th anniversary, the HFSC held a side-by-side burn demonstration at the NFPA Conference & Expo in Las Vegas in June. Pictured from left: Ron Hazelton, HFSC spokesman; Peg Paul, HFSC communications manager; Frank Mortl, AFSA executive vice president; Steve Muncy, AFSA president; Gary Keith, vice president for engineering standards at FM Global; Lorraine Carli, vice president of outreach and advocacy at NFPA and current HFSC president; and Vicki Pritchett, NFSA director of outreach and government relations.

Muncy, who will retire from AFSA in December, agrees. “Focusing on those goals, HFSC has accomplished so much more than we originally thought 20 years ago. As I near retirement, I must say that my involvement on the HFSC board for 20 years has been one of the most satisfying efforts of my career—something I will look back on with satisfaction and fond memories. I’m sure HFSC will continue to spread the message about home fire sprinklers for decades to come.”

Carli emphasizes that HFSC has the utmost gratitude for its founding members. “Their foresight we know has saved lives and will continue to do so for many decades to come,” she says. “It has proved to be a very successful model aimed at the most pressing fire issue of our time—home fires.”