For State Farm, the only insurer to partner with HFSC, sprinklers are essential tools for preventing deaths, injuries, and property loss as a result of home fires
BY JEFF FEID
WITNESSING A HOME FIRE, especially one that could have been prevented, is a devastating experience. When you see the disruption and possible injury to a family, as well as the destruction of property and possessions, you want to do something to stop needless suffering and loss from recurring. The Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition (HFSC) is doing just that—empowering families and communities to live safer lives. And my company, State Farm®, is a proud supporter of their work.
I never expected to be in the insurance business. In fact, I began my career as a local code official. When I started out, I viewed my mission as ensuring the safest home and building construction possible in my community. I was personally committed to that ideal, with my neighbors and my family in mind. Over the years, I inspected hundreds of buildings: some well-constructed and safe, and others with conditions that could only be described as dangerous. It became clear to me that building codes generally describe only a minimum level of enforceable safety, rather than the best way to achieve the highest level of safety.
After 15 years working in code inspection and enforcement, I had the opportunity to join State Farm Insurance Companies in Bloomington, Illinois, as part of the Property Casualty Underwriting Loss Mitigation unit. State Farm brought me on board to help advance the company’s long-standing work on safety, something that’s been demonstrated over the years in many public policy issues affecting both homes and vehicles. State Farm’s commitment is demonstrated by their hiring of experienced folks like me to help advance the level of knowledge and to pass that information on to our public officials and the public in general.
EDUCATION & SUPPORT
As the only insurer to join ranks with the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition (HFSC), State Farm has been able to apply its knowledge to help the industry stay current on the latest safety trends and resources. I’ve been a member of the HFSC board since 2004 and have seen their great work first-hand. State Farm has sponsored sprinkler demonstrations, assisted HFSC booths at trade shows, and provided funding. HFSC has done a terrific job with targeted educational information on sprinklers to stakeholders involved in building, owning, protecting, insuring, and selling homes.
State Farm representatives have also made presentations at NFPA Fire Sprinkler Initiative Summits, contributed to the Fire Protection Research Foundation’s “Home Fire Sprinkler Cost Assessment” studies of 2008 and 2013, and participated in NFPA’s Life Safety Sprinkler Systems Challenge Workshop. I serve as a member of the Technical Committee on Residential Fire Sprinklers for NPFA 13D, Installation of Sprinkler Systems in One- and Two-Family Dwellings and Manufactured Homes, and NFPA 13R, Installation of Sprinkler Systems in Low-Rise Residential Occupancies. In 2011, I was honored to be named “Fire Sprinkler Advocate of the Year” by the American Fire Sprinkler Association. All this activity fits well with my company’s mission of helping customers manage the risks of everyday life, particularly for one of their biggest investments—their homes.
State Farm’s commitment to protection also extends to education and advocacy. The company provides funding for research, data, and most important, the resource of our associates, who I believe are some of the best in the industry. For example, the company has partnered on multiple occasions with Habitat for Humanity affiliates to have home fire sprinklers built into their homes, often with sprinkler manufacturers and contractors donating materials and time.
In Maine, State Farm’s assistance with the Maine State Fire Marshal’s Office includes public sprinkler demonstrations. In the town of Caribou, participants witnessed a room reach flashover in just two-and-a-half minutes. In dramatic contrast, a fire in the same room, sprinklered, was extinguished in just over a minute. “My advocacy for fire sprinklers is based on facts and science,” said Joseph E. Thomas, the state’s fire marshal. “I encourage community leaders to sit with their fire chiefs and code officials to determine how community risk reduction and fire sprinkler strategies can, and will, make a difference for the protection of their communities.”
While our company supports public policy changes that enhance safety, we’ve found that lawmakers can often have differences of opinion on home sprinklers. Some feel government shouldn’t impose sprinklers or other safety measures on individuals, while others strongly support making sprinklers a requirement.
I am amazed and concerned that special-interest groups in several states have successfully stopped home fire sprinkler codes. Now that residential sprinklers are a minimum requirement in the model building codes, we need to change that attitude. Sprinkler opponents often seem to draw on common myths: that sprinklers unreasonably increase the cost of a home, raise water utility fees, create a risk of flooding from burst pipes, and so on. These myths can hide the true value of home fire sprinklers. For consumers, the decision of whether or not to include fire sprinklers in their homes should come down to making an educated choice to protect their families, whether sprinklers are mandated or not.
State Farm actively supports state code updates that include a sprinkler provision, and we are working with several state fire sprinkler coalitions to champion the benefits of home sprinklers. We believe our presence and the fact that we provide premium discounts in many states for homes with sprinklers help refute any myths about the value of sprinklers.
WHY WE SUPPORT SPRINKLERS
Simply put, fire sprinklers save lives and property. While not designed to subdue the entire fire, they do give occupants time to get out before flashovers occur. Sprinklers result in fires being smaller when first responders arrive, putting them at lower risk. Property loss is more likely to be contained, saving homeowners the heartache of a total loss and the difficult process of having to rebuild their lives.
According to a 15-year study of a landmark sprinkler ordinance in Scottsdale, Arizona—which has required sprinklers in all new single-family homes since 1986—the average cost of damage to a home without fire sprinklers is approximately $45,000, versus only about $2,000 for a home protected by fire sprinklers. Most important, NFPA’s Fire Sprinkler Initiative indicates that loss of life is reduced by 80 percent with fire sprinklers, not to mention the fact that water used to control a fire is also reduced by eight-and-a-half times with an activated sprinkler. State Farm’s participation with the HFSC facilitates delivery of these important messages and the need to make this life-saving tool available in all homes. The dedication of HFSC members reaches beyond business or professional duties, going to the heart of the families who live in these homes.
When considering the benefits of home fire sprinklers, the safety of our first responders can’t be overlooked. Recent analysis by the Maine State Fire Marshal’s Office shows that many fire departments are able to protect exposures at fire scenes. Departments are often arriving on scene to fully involved structures, with a rise in short flashover times attributable to household furnishings, modern construction materials, and the fact that consumers have more and more “stuff” in their homes. “If any difference is going to be made in improving this loss rate and the saving of lives, the installation of home fire sprinklers is the only answer,” said Joseph Thomas, the Maine State Fire Marshal. Even where a sprinklered home does burn down, if all occupants and first responders emerge uninjured, it is a fire sprinkler success.
As a former code official who wanted to help make my hometown safer, it’s been especially rewarding to advance that same goal from within a major insurance company. Insurers, safety organizations, and public policymakers all need to keep working together to move these ideas ahead and promote safety technology for the benefit of the public. Organizations like HFSC are essential to keeping these issues front and center. I firmly believe home fire sprinklers will be a key component in reducing fire deaths and injuries in our homes, much like seat belts and airbags helped us turn the safety corner years ago in the cars we drive. While the next 20 years will likely bring even more advances in safety technology, we thank HFSC for the past 20 years of fire sprinkler advocacy.