The Case For Home Fire Sprinklers
Illustration by Seth
NFPA’s new advocacy campaign calls for sprinklers in every new one- and two-family home in the country. Here’s how you can get involved.
NFPA Journal®, March/April 2009
By Scott Sutherland
On Janauary 5, John Robert Ray, chief of the Anne Arundel County Fire Department in Maryland, sat before the county council and explained why its seven members should vote in favor of a residential sprinkler ordinance. "Tonight you have the opportunity to tell all Anne Arundel County residents that their lives are equally important, rather than a matter of chance based on where they choose to live," Ray told the council. A state-mandated sprinkler ordinance for townhomes and condominiums had been on the books since 1992, but previous efforts in Anne Arundel to pass a similar measure for new one- and two-family homes had failed, largely due to opposition by homebuilders.
This time it stuck. That evening, the council voted 6-1 to adopt the ordinance, which requires sprinklers in all new one- and two-family homes, as well as in new, first-owner mobile homes and in certain renovations. Anne Arundel became the ninth of Maryland’s 23 counties to enact such legislation, joining 82 cities and towns in the state that have similar laws.
"We had some opposition again from the homebuilders and real estate people, who said this wasn’t a good time for the ordinance because it would add costs to new construction, and because they were already having a hard time selling new homes," Ray told NFPA Journal several weeks after the vote. "But I pointed out to them that those were the same arguments they used back in the 1990s, when the market was booming. It’s always the right time to protect lives."
Anne Arundel County exemplifies the goals of "Fire Sprinkler Initiative: Bringing Safety Home," the NFPA advocacy campaign that officially launched in January. The Web-based initiative (www.firesprinklerinitiative.org ) will provide materials and resources to people and organizations working for the adoption of requirements for automatic fire sprinklers in new one- and two-family homes. The effort is aimed at adoption on the local, county, and state levels, and can take the form of ordinances or model codes such as NFPA 1, Fire Code™, NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, NFPA 5000®, Building Construction & Safety Code®, or the International Residential Code (IRC), all of which include provisions requiring home fire sprinklers in one- and two-family dwellings.
On February 4, NFPA President James Shannon spoke to several hundred attendees at the Residential Fire Sprinkler Summit in Addison, Illinois. About 400 communities across the country have residential sprinklers in use, Shannon told the gathering. "Our goal is to increase that number exponentially over the next few years, and with that broad experience, rebut all of the specious arguments about residential sprinklers, their cost, and their effectiveness that have kept communities and states from adopting residential sprinkler ordinances," he said. "Our opportunity to achieve that common and worthy goal is greater than it has ever been before."
As Shannon addressed the Illinois group, a bill supported by the initiative’s opposition—chiefly homebuilder and real estate interests—was working its way through the Arizona state legislature. HB 2267 would prohibit communities in the state from passing ordinances requiring sprinklers in new, single-family detached homes. The only communities unaffected would be the handful that already have ordinances in place, including Scottsdale, which has had one since 1986. Despite opposition from more than 30 individuals and groups, including the Arizona League of Cities and Towns, the Arizona Fire Marshals Association, and the Arizona Fire Chiefs Association, the bill won endorsement in committee and was headed to the House floor. Similar anti-sprinkler motions are under consideration in North Dakota, Maine, and elsewhere.
NFPA and its advocacy campaigns are no strangers to adversity. The Coalition for Fire-Safe Cigarettes, launched in 2006 with the goal of passing fire-safe cigarette laws in all 50 states, faced a powerful foe in the well-funded, politically connected tobacco lobby. Three years later, however, 37 states have either implemented the law or passed legislation paving the way for a law, and nine more have legislation pending.
With the fire-safe cigarettes effort underway, NFPA in 2007 began a series of focus groups with the fire service, sessions designed to identify other issues requiring a coordinated effort to reduce home fire fatalities and injuries. Overwhelmingly, participants said they wanted to see NFPA back a home fire sprinkler initiative. The idea made sense; NFPA had been a founding member of the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition a decade earlier, and related NFPA model codes had included home sprinkler provisions since 2006. In addition, a growing number of communities across the country were considering, and in many cases passing, sprinkler ordinances of their own. Last September, the International Code Council voted to require sprinklers in new one- and two-family dwellings, effective 2011, in the IRC, a move supported by NFPA. The following month, NFPA announced it would "coordinate a campaign to increase the number of homes protected by sprinklers."
"The inclusion of a home sprinkler requirement for new construction in all the model codes strengthens our advocacy position," says Lorraine Carli, vice-president for Communications at NFPA. "We have been very clear that our efforts to move this initiative forward include advocating for the adoption of any code, including the IRC, that contains a sprinkler provision."
The initiative is "exactly what’s needed," says Cathleen Vitale, the Anne Arundel County council member who introduced the sprinkler bill that was adopted in January. "Education is a huge part of what these efforts are about," says Vitale. "The ability to have that information in a central location is a vital tool in the legislative process."
Getting it done
The case for home fire sprinklers is timely and compelling and supported by an array of NFPA research. Around 80 percent of fire deaths in the United States occur in the home, killing nearly 3,000 people every year. Sprinklers have been used for more than a century to protect commercial, industrial, and public buildings, and have proven highly effective in multifamily dwellings. NFPA has no record of a multiple fatality in a fully sprinklered building where the system operated. The risk of dying in a home where a fire is reported decreases by about 80 percent when sprinklers are present. The cost of installing a sprinkler system in a new construction averages $1.61 per square foot.
Vitale remembers the exact moment she decided to fight for home fire sprinklers in Anne Arundel County. Her husband, Mark, a local firefighter, had come home following a shift that included battling a house fire that claimed the lives of two children. Outside the children’s room, he told her, a smoke detector sat upside down on a shelf. There were no batteries in it. "He just sat there hugging our little boy, saying ‘they didn’t have a chance,’" she recalls.
Vitale, an attorney who describes herself as a "staunch Republican," began researching home fire sprinklers. She talked to the local fire service, to homebuilders and real estate representatives, and to other communities that had passed ordinances. She met with local public works officials to make sure water-supply issues were addressed. She was clear about her intentions with fellow council members, and she made sure the community at large knew about her sprinkler effort. It took her "several years" to research the issue and craft a bill, Vitale says, but her due diligence paid off. The bill was introduced last October—timing it with NFPA’s Fire Prevention Week was deliberate, she says—and it passed three months later with no major amendments. Homebuilder opposition was minimal, she says. "They spoke in terms of economics, saying now’s not the time, but I attributed their absence to being somewhat supportive of what we were trying to do," she says. "They can pack our council room with 300 people if they oppose something."
Vitale, Chief Ray, and others readily share tips and strategy with sprinkler advocates; their suggestions, and much more, are available at www.firesprinklerinitiative.com. For the fire service, says Ray, get your own house in order first; make sure the volunteer service and the union are behind the effort. Use local stories of home fire injuries or deaths to illustrate that every new sprinklered home is an opportunity to avoid stories such as these in the future. Know what the research says about how new, lightweight construction burns. "[New] homes burn faster, produce more heat and deadly smoke, and collapse more rapidly than at any time in our history," Ray told the council in November. "Modern construction methods and materials should be matched with modern fire protection systems."
On the legislative side, Vitale says, make sure you have the support of a county executive or mayor. Take your advocacy message directly to the community, and share burn research on old construction vs. new with homebuilders and real estate representatives. Seek out existing sprinkler legislation—such as that available on the sprinkler initiative website—to modify for use in your own community. "Know that you’re not in this alone," urges Vitale. "For every point your opponents raise, you can have a counterpoint that supports the idea that sprinklers should be done in new construction without a second thought. And all of that information is out there."
Mike Chapman, a homebuilder in New Mexico, urges advocates to consider negotiating trade-offs if a community requires residential sprinklers. "You’re getting the benefit of safer houses, so you can look at things like road widths, water requirements, and other infrastructure needs [as areas to save money]," he says. "If you can link sprinklers to a reduction of city expenditures, these kinds of efforts could be very successful."
It doesn’t matter how you do it, Vitale says—just get it done. "We require sprinklers to protect everything else, so why not the same for one- and two-family homes?" she asks. "Building a home is more than selecting a grade of carpet, or deciding if you want solid cherry cabinets. Sprinklers are common sense."
Scott Sutherland is executive editor of NFPA Journal.