Author(s): Lorraine Carli. Published on May 1, 2017.

Falling Short

A six-year-old girl's death in a Connecticut house fire underscores the need for code-making bodies nationwide to embrace home fire sprinklers

Maybe this time Connecticut can get it right.

Since 2010, the state’s code-making body has decided against adopting a home fire sprinkler requirement every time it has updated the state building code, even though a provision mandating home fire sprinklers in new one- and two-family homes has been included in every model building code since 2009. During that time, legislation requiring the installation of fire sprinklers in new homes has also been defeated in Connecticut, with help from local fire sprinkler opponents. As you read this, the state is again considering the sprinkler requirement.

I thought of all this and more recently as I travelled to Plainfield, Connecticut, to join the local fire service and the greater fire safety community to mourn the death of a six-year-old girl who had died in a house fire a few weeks earlier. The girl’s family had moved into a new house only a few months before, and I tried to imagine the special joy they must have felt, as well as the terror they experienced during the fire and the loss they endured now. The blaze, which may have been sparked by a malfunctioning kitchen appliance, according to the town’s fire marshal, ripped through the home in minutes, trapping a mother and her two children. By the time first responders arrived, the home was engulfed in flames. Police managed to pull the mother and her young son out of a bedroom window, and both suffered critical injuries. The six-year-old girl, investigators said, could not be rescued. Her body was found in the living room.

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Her death is tragic, but it’s even more upsetting when you realize that we have long had the knowledge and technology to prevent these kinds of events. Simple and inexpensive devices called home fire sprinklers have protected people and property in all kinds of buildings for more than 100 years. When installed in homes, they can reduce the risk of dying in a home fire by 80 percent, according to NFPA studies. We know that the majority of fire deaths and injuries in this country occur in homes; even so, too many homes today are still built without sprinklers. The home in Connecticut, built by Habitat for Humanity only a few months before the fire, did not have sprinklers installed. The tragedy painfully rebukes the notion put forward by builders that new homes don’t burn.

Imagine if authorities having jurisdiction had adopted the sprinkler provisions from the model building codes, and that all new one- and two-family homes built since 2010 were equipped with home fire sprinklers. That amounts to more than 5.5 million new homes protected by automatic fire sprinklers nationwide, according to housing data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Imagine if all homes built by Habitat for Humanity, like the one in Connecticut, included home fire sprinklers. That would mean vastly improved fire protection for thousands of families, many of whom are part of a demographic that faces a historically higher risk of fire.

Instead, code-making bodies continue to punt on the issue, and Connecticut is hardly alone. States throughout the country have repeatedly prohibited sprinkler installation, despite model code requirements. Like Connecticut, they fall short in their responsibility to ensure new homes meet a certain level of safety. They fall short in their responsibility to protect citizens, and they fall short in their responsibility to protect the firefighters who must deal with the consequences.

We urge decision makers in Connecticut and around the country to require fire sprinklers in all new homes and to stop allowing the construction of substandard homes, a move that would save lives for generations to come. We should not have to imagine a future where no one dies of a fire in their home—that future can and should be a reality.

LORRAINE CARLI is vice president of Outreach and Advocacy for NFPA.