Author(s): Stephanie Schorow. Published on October 1, 2016.

High Hopes

How the fire service is working with future homebuilders to encourage home sprinkler installation

BY STEPHANIE SCHOROW

TODAY'S HOMEBUILDERS MAY BE IMPLACABLE FOES of mandatory home fire sprinkler requirements, but Reggie Edwards, deputy fire marshal of the Nampa, Idaho, Fire Department, has high hopes for the next generation of construction professionals.

Edwards, a staunch advocate for home fire sprinklers, has helped institute a unit in a local high school vocational educational program to teach future homebuilders how to install home sprinklers and how they can improve life safety. Working with Habitat for Humanity, Nampa students have built five homes, all of which have included sprinklers, in the last five years.

“We’re doing what we can to change the hearts and minds of the future Building Contractors Association members,” said Edwards, a 38-year veteran of the fire service. “We teach them the facts. Then they can make informed decisions.”

The program made an impact on 18-year-old Michael Hamilton of Nampa, a recent high school graduate who plans to go on to a career in construction. “I would love to see home sprinklers become more common,” he said. “I can’t say they should be always required but I think that sprinkler installation should be enforced in specific conditions. The numbers prove that these work.”

Nampa is one of a number of programs around the country where fire departments are partnering with educational institutions to train students about the installation and use of home fire sprinklers. Many have been launched with grants from the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition (HFSC) through its Built for Life Fire Department program.

One such grant went to the fire department in Ferndale, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit, which has formed a successful partnership with the Detroit Carpentry Apprenticeship Academy. Under the direction of Fire Marshal Brian Batten, students built two units to be used for educational side-by-side burn demonstrations for the public. Every three months, 20 to 30 students watch a video about home fire sprinklers, receive printed materials about home fire sprinklers, and witness a live side-by-side burn, where fires are started in a room equipped with sprinklers and in one without sprinklers. The vivid demonstration—including the rapid growth of the fire, the impact of flashover, and the destruction of the room and its contents—underscores the clear benefits of installing sprinklers in homes, Batten said. “They have been amazed—just flabbergasted,” Batten said of students’ reactions. Hamilton was extremely impressed with such a demonstration in the Nampa program. “That was really, really cool,” he said. “We can see what our work has the ability to do.”

“The idea is to change attitudes early in their careers.” Edwards said he launched the Nampa program to counter the fierce anti–home sprinkler attitude exhibited by builders. “For some reason home fire sprinklers just touch a nerve,” he said. “We have always run into this culture—otherwise well-educated adults in the building community who are so opposed to sprinklers.”

He knew that students built Habitat for Humanity homes through the Nampa Construction Technology Program, a high school vocational education program. Helped by an HFSC grant, Edwards worked with partners to incorporate home sprinkler education as part of the curriculum. The program is preparing to start building its sixth home this fall.

Edwards teaches a section in the classroom and another with hands-on construction at the home site. Certified sprinkler pipefitters assist with the installation of a home sprinkler system and local fire sprinkler vendors have donated the design, parts, and piping for the home. A public side-by-side burn demonstration tops off the curriculum.

A graduate of the Nampa program and now a sprinkler advocate is Edwards’s son, Ryan, who acknowledges he has grown up in a family committed to fire safety. But Ryan was particularly struck by the need for sprinklers during construction of a Habitat for Humanity house for a man confined to a wheelchair. If the man didn’t have the extra time to get out in the case of fire, “he’d be dead,” the younger Edwards said. “It was really cool to put lifesaving measures in the house.”

If he were to build his own house, “I would put in fire sprinklers, that’s my top priority,” Ryan said.

Builder Brett Miller, a construction technician with the Nampa program, said the impact on the student builders is significant. Miller believes that ultimately other builders will, like him, come to accept the need for home fire sprinklers in new construction. “I think it’s a matter of time,” he said.

His former student Michael Hamilton agrees. “I think contractors should stop looking into their wallets but who their work is going to,” Hamilton said. “To put myself in that scenario, depending on the house or hundreds of local variables, I would be putting in sprinklers in as many houses as I could.”

STEPHANIE SCHOROW is a writer based in Boston. Top Photograph: Thinkstock