Published on October 1, 2016.

Mr. Sprinkler

As the public face of the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition, Ron Hazelton has embraced the role of sprinkler educator par excellence

BY BEVERLY FORD

RON HAZELTON IS NO STRANGER TO FIRE.

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The do-it-yourself guru and host of several popular home improvement television shows has had his share of brushes with fire over the years, including one close call that almost cost him his life. Those experiences made the 76-year-old New Yorker and host of “Ron Hazelton’s House Calls” a staunch advocate for home fire sprinklers and, for the last 20 years, the spokesman for the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition.

During his years as the face of the coalition, Hazelton has done countless side-by-side burn demonstrations, on television as a guest of “Good Morning America” and in person at fire safety events across the country. The demos, which involve filming fires in two similarly furnished rooms—one outfitted with sprinklers, the other not—have given thousands of citizens and firefighting professionals an up-close look at how rapidly fire can develop and how quickly protective fire sprinklers work.

Even though sprinklers and smoke alarms increase the chance of surviving a fire by 80 percent, only about 3 percent of all residential buildings are equipped with sprinklers, according to NFPA and the U.S. Fire Administration. And that means only one thing for Hazelton: There’s still more work to do to educate the public on fire safety.

How did you first get involved in the fire sprinkler movement?

I had just gotten married and it was my first apartment as a married man. It was around 1964, I was probably 20 or 21. We were living in a duplex in Clearwater, Florida, when I went outside to talk to the owner of the building. As I was going back to my home, the entire side of the building went up in flames. It all happened so quickly, so fast. The gas regulator had been installed wrong. It forced propane into the house, which caused an explosion. Three people lost their lives. They were blown outside the building. It gave me a very up-close and personal experience of a home fire. I knew the people who died in that fire so it made a lasting impression on me. When you see people who are severely burned like that, it’s something you don’t forget.

Years later, there was an apartment fire in Staten Island in which some children were killed. I remember reading about it in the paper. The father went out to the market but when he came back the apartment was ablaze. He could hear his children yelling ‘Daddy, please help us.’ That just went to my core. By that time I had my daughter and couldn’t imagine being in that situation. It was horrifying to me, the idea of being helpless to save your family. But I was also living in a center-entrance Colonial and had heard that the center stairwell could fill with smoke and fire and could trap children who were upstairs, preventing them from being rescued during a fire. I was starting to become aware of the kinds of threats fire posed.

Later, on a visit to California, my 18-month-old daughter fell into a pool. As she was sinking to the bottom, she was looking up at me and in her eyes, I could see her saying, “Help me, Daddy.” I remember imagining, “What if I couldn’t do anything about this?” She was totally helpless, and was totally dependent on me. That, coupled with the situation of the dad who couldn’t help his children, gave me the feeling of what it felt like to not be able to help. For a parent, it’s probably the most horrifying thing you could think of when it comes to a child. Had I not been there to pull my daughter out of the pool that day, she would have drowned. It wasn’t hard for me to imagine that situation in something like a fire. It all came together for me, and that’s when I said, “This is important.”

Is that when you got involved with the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition?

After HFSC was founded, someone suggested I become the spokesman because of my work as a home improvement expert. Working with Peg Paul, HFSC’s communication manager, we did a retrofit of my home in Connecticut about 12 years ago. We brought a video crew in during the installation to show how the retrofit was done.

I was very interested in how they installed the fire sprinklers. They would run a pipe inside a closet or a laundry chute. It took a lot of planning so they didn’t have to tear the house apart. Another thing you had to consider was the water pattern from the sprinklers and how that water pattern needed to overlap. There was a lot of thoughtful design and engineering that went into the sprinklers in my home. Once they were installed, it gave me immense peace of mind.

Why was it so important to you to have home fire sprinklers installed?

The thing about fatal fires is that most of them happen at night. If you have smoke alarms, they’re going to wake you up and alert you to the presence of a fire so you can get out of there and get your family out of there. It’s surprising how fast a fire can become deadly—sometimes it’s within only two to four minutes, and if you’re waking up, that’s not a lot of time. Sprinklers can buy you that little bit of extra time to get out safely.

Wouldn’t smoke alarms alone do the job?

People should have an accurate understanding of what a fire can be like. We have a lot of Hollywood versions of fire in our minds—a lot of flame and no smoke. We don’t understand how quickly fires can spread and how difficult it is to function in a home that is on fire. Sometimes, it takes just a few minutes for smoke to fill a room. The smoke alarms will go off and wake you, but the sprinklers can control the fire and give you time to escape.

What did you do to get the word out with HFSC?

I started doing fire safety demonstrations. I did a few on “Good Morning America” where we did side-by-side burns. We would build two identical rooms, one with a sprinkler system and one without, and we would set them on fire. In two to three minutes, temperatures in the unsprinklered room were up to 1,500 degrees. In the other room, the sprinkler would activate and put the fire out. People could see how the unsprinklered rooms quickly became unsurvivable, mostly because of the smoke.

The first side-by-side burn we did was in Scottsdale, Arizona, to show how quickly fire sprinklers could put out the flame. I was geared up with a mask, and when the smoke cleared I took it off but the fumes and vapors from the burn were so strong that I couldn’t breathe. I remember thinking, “If it’s this bad with the smoke gone, how bad would it be with the smoke?”

We also created a “burn trailer” demonstration in Times Square in New York City and lit the drapes on fire. When the curtains burned, flames leaped to the ceiling and the sprinklers went off. The whole thing was put out in a matter of seconds by sprinklers.

One of the last burns we did was in June at the NFPA conference in Las Vegas. It was a very, very hot fire. It started fast and burned hot. The heat generated from it was impressive. We had flashover in that fire in just about a minute. We had firefighters and fire administrators on bleachers watching. They were about 50 feet away but when the wind grabbed that smoke, you could feel it when you took in a breath. You can only imagine what it’s like when it’s concentrated in a room.

What else have you learned about home fire sprinklers over the years?

It’s important to have three things: smoke alarms, sprinklers, and an escape plan. Most families don’t rehearse a fire escape. They don’t have a meeting point outside the house. They don’t have an alternative escape route for the kids. These are all things families should do.

What do you tell people when you recommend home sprinklers?

They’re all UL approved and they all work. The home fire sprinkler push has really been for putting sprinklers in new construction. That’s a no-brainer, because it doesn’t cost that much when you’re building new. Right now, the current price is about $1.35 per sprinklered square foot, so for a 2,000-square-foot home, the cost would be about $2,700. A retrofit costs about twice that because it involves opening walls.

What keeps you interested in promoting home fire sprinklers?

I think that goes back to my own personal sense of the need to protect my family. I know that with sprinklers, if there should be a fire it’s going to be put out and it’s not going to take the lives of my family. Fire is so unpredictable, and I’ve seen what can happen. But in sprinklered rooms, that fire is out in a minute or two. It’s like having a firefighter living in your home. That’s the kind of peace of mind and security you’re getting with home fire sprinklers. That’s probably the most compelling message we have.

BEVERLY FORD is a freelance writer.