The Human Dimension
The new Faces of Fire campaign puts a human face on NFPA’s Fire Sprinkler Initiative. Plus, legislative updates and new research on the sprinkler front.
NFPA Journal®, November/December 2010
By Fred Durso, Jr.
The night of March 23, 1992, began like any other for South Carolina resident Princella Lee-Bridges. Before the operating room nurse headed to work, she reviewed her stepdaughter Jennifer’s homework.
That’s when she heard the screams of her stepson, Jason.
Lee-Bridges ran into the living room and saw a fire, which had started when a kerosene heater ignited flooring coated with polyurethane. She tried to put the fire out with a fire extinguisher, but it had little effect. She then ran outside to meet Jason and her father, Sylvester. Jennifer wasn’t there.
Lee-Bridges reentered the home, which the family had purchased only fourth months earlier, and searched frantically for Jennifer. She stayed in the house until she was overwhelmed by smoke and flames, but still managed to make her way outside before collapsing. She had raced back into the house not knowing that firefighters had already rescued Jennifer.
Lee-Bridges spent two months in a medically induced coma, with third-degree burns on half her body, including her face. When she emerged from the coma, Lee-Bridges made a startling discovery: her fingerless hands. “My hands were my life,” the 51-year-old says, fighting back tears. “I was a former paramedical evacuation nurse during Operation Desert Storm. There must have been something else that’s in store for me, because my plan went by the wayside.”
Now an advocate for burn survivors, Lee-Bridges has shared her story with South Carolina legislators and code officials in the hope of enacting legislation for residential sprinklers in all new homes. She’s the founder of Bridges from Augusta, an organization serving her state’s burn survivors. “If I’d had [sprinklers] in my home, we would have had a totally different outcome,” she says.
Lee-Bridges’ story is one of more than a dozen highlighted in Faces of Fire, a new NFPA program that adds a human element to the Association’s Fire Sprinkler Initiative, which was launched last year to promote code adoptions and local ordinances requiring sprinklers in new one- and two-family homes.
A Faces of Fire kickoff event scheduled for October 25 and 26 in Boston, including a sprinkler side-by-side burn demonstration in Weymouth, Massachusetts, was designed to provide an overview of the campaign’s new online tool kit, available at firesprinklerinitiative.org/faces, for use by local advocates and fire personnel.
Videos, photographs, and written profiles of burn survivors, fire service members affected by fires in one- and two-family dwellings, and residents whose lives have been saved by sprinklers complement new fact sheets underscoring relevant sprinkler research, and the overall effectiveness of home fire sprinklers.
“The majority of the information we’ve used in the Fire Sprinkler Initiative has been statistical and fact-based in nature,” says Lorraine Carli, NFPA’s vice-president of Communications and the new campaign’s lead contact. “We’re now adding a very human dimension. Any time there’s a home fire, real people are impacted. Faces of Fire is a way to tell these stories through the eyes of people that were affected.”
Lee-Bridges and other Faces of Fire participants were discovered through a partnership with the Michigan-based Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors, recommendations from fire service officials, and media outlets. Each scenario features people who have either benefited from the presence of sprinklers or whose stories might have been different had residential sprinklers been in place. The program is funded by a $746,000 grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Fire Prevention and Safety Grant Program.
“We’re hoping this campaign gets us closer to our goal of getting sprinkler requirements in every state,” Carli says. “By combining real stories with statistical figures, we have all the bases covered for making the argument about why home fire sprinklers in all new one- and two-family dwellings are so important.”
According to NFPA statistics, approximately 3,000 people die in home fires in the United States each year, accounting for 80 percent of all fire deaths.
Sprinkler legislation update
On the legislative front, legal wrangling initiated by the Pennsylvania Builders Association has turned into a victory for sprinkler advocates. In August, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania officially dismissed a lawsuit filed by the builders association last year, which attempted to stop enforcement of the statewide adoption of the 2009 International Residential Code® (IRC) that requires fire sprinklers in all new townhouses this year and new one- and two-family homes in the state effective January 1, 2011. Preceding this decision was a judge’s rejection in March of a preliminary injunction filed by the association.
The court’s opinion for the lawsuit dismissal affirms that Pennsylvania’s Uniform Construction Code, which includes the sprinkler provision, is “an effort to insure uniform, modern construction standards, and regulations, and to promote safety…throughout the Commonwealth.” The Pennsylvania Residential Fire Sprinkler Coalition, which was closely coordinated with Fire Sprinkler Initiative activities and includes members of the fire service, has played a key role in providing testimony during previous court hearings and backing the sprinkler effort. Similar coalitions have formed in Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Montana, North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin, and similar but less-formalized efforts are taking place elsewhere.
In neighboring New Jersey, the state’s Department of Community Affairs Commissioner Lori Grifa has rejected an amended IRC that would have required home sprinklers in the state. A New Jersey review commission approved the measure this year after it remained in limbo for months. The provision was then reviewed by Grifa, who issued her final decision in August. “The decision…was the result of weighing and balancing the public benefit against the perceived need,” Grifa said in a statement. “In the current economic climate, it is paramount that state agency policies be sensitive to their impact on our economic recovery. The imposition of an additional cost that might impede the recovery of the residential construction sector…is a step that cannot be taken at this time.”
Gary Keith, NFPA’s vice-president of Field Operations, cites research reports and community studies showing that home fire sprinklers are, in fact, cost-effective. “The provisions in all the national model codes now mean that these sprinklers are a minimum level of safety for new construction,” he says. “Anything less is not acceptable.”
Virginia’s Board of Housing and Community Development also decided in July to exclude a residential sprinkler option from the building code. Last year, the board preliminarily voted to keep residential sprinklers optional but asked the fire service to come up with a possible compromise. The Virginia Residential Sprinkler Coalition did suggest the inclusion of sprinklers in only townhouses, not one- and two-family homes, but the Codes and Standards Committee decided to defer all considerations until the 2012 code review.
In Maryland, sprinklers are required on a county-by-county basis. California will begin installing sprinklers in townhouses, as well as one- and two-family homes, next year, and it is hoped that New Hampshire will enact the same provisions in 2012. Earlier this year, South Carolina adopted the IRC with a 2011 start date for new construction, but an amended bill signed by Governor Mark Sanford has pushed the date to 2014.
“The fact that a few states have accepted residential sprinklers, particularly a large state like California, will help support the position that this is the new minimum level of safety that should be required in dwellings,” Keith says.
New research has found another benefit of residential sprinklers—and this one may have communities seeing green.
Incentives for the Use of Residential Fire Sprinkler Systems in U.S. Communities, a new report by the Fire Protection Research Foundation, outlines potential money-saving incentives for residential sprinkler installation backed by estimated values. “The goal is to provide models and case studies to assist local jurisdictions in their efforts to encourage and incentivize the use of home fire sprinklers by builders,” says Kathleen Almand, executive director of the Foundation, which prepared the report in conjunction with Newport Partners. This report is a follow-up to the Home Fire Sprinkler Cost Assessment Report done by Newport Partners, which found the average cost of home fire sprinklers is $1.61 per sprinklered square foot.
The incentives defined in the report, which analyzes data from February through May 2010, are benefits from state or local governments, local water authorities, or nonprofit groups that result from using sprinklers and otherwise wouldn’t be available to developers, builders, and homebuilders. The report found the per-building-lot incentives expected to accrue were valued at $1,949 for builders and $1,271 for developers. Incentives related to homeowners were lower, with a total first-year value of $145 per building lot. More sizable figures for homeowner incentives will accrue over time, the report notes, since tradeoffs such as reduced property and fire flow taxes recur annually.
Rather than take a random sampling of communities for the study, the report analyzed 16 U.S. communities with developer-, builder-, or homeowner-oriented incentives, based on leads from the fire service, industry-specific associations, and building departments. Some homeowners obtained property tax cuts and special financing options, while some builders received reduced fees for building permits, sprinkler permits, and water system development.
Developer incentives in pro-sprinkler cities, deemed “off-site design flexibility” development and construction modifications in the report, include a reduction in road width and increased fire hydrant spacing. Greater distances between hydrants would lead to lower hydrant costs per building lot, a reduction presented as one of the tradeoffs in the report. Another report, produced by WHPacific for Oregon’s Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue district, analyzed the cost implications of residential sprinklers in new construction within the district. The report indicated narrower road widths in sprinklered communities could accommodate smaller emergency response vehicles with the assumption that larger response vehicles may not be used if homes are sprinklered.
For more information on the Research Foundation’s related sprinkler reports visit nfpa.org/foundation.
Fred Durso, Jr. is staff writer for NFPA Journal.
Pennsylvania chief wins inaugural sprinkler award
Timothy Solobay, fire chief for the Canonsburg Volunteer Fire Department in Pennsylvania, was recently named winner of the first Bringing Safety Home Award. NFPA and the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition (HFSC) teamed up with the International Association of Fire Chiefs Fire & Life Safety Section this year to recognize efforts by fire chiefs who promote the installation of home fire sprinklers. Solobay received the award in August at the Fire-Rescue International forum in Chicago.
A state representative and a 33-year veteran of the fire service, Solobay has used HFSC and NFPA’s Fire Sprinkler Initiative resources to promote the benefits of home fire sprinklers to key public officials, fire service members, and the public. Despite legal action by the Pennsylvania Builders Association in response to the state’s adoption of the 2009 IRC and its residential sprinkler requirement, fire service members including Solobay successfully fought the lawsuit.
Solobay also co-chairs the Pennsylvania Senate’s Resolution 60 Commission, which studies the fire and emergency medical service delivery system in the state and developed legislative and operational recommendations to improve delivery. He also co-chairs the Fire Services Legislative Caucus.
"We are very pleased that the award goes to a fire chief who has demonstrated such a longstanding personal commitment to increased home fire sprinkler protection," says Gary Keith, NFPA’s vice-president of Field Operations. "I wish every community had the benefit of a sprinkler advocate as knowledgeable, resourceful, and committed as Chief Solobay."
— Fred Durso, Jr.