‘The ultimate side-by-side’
Measuring the soup-to-nuts environmental impact of fire
Attendees at the FM Global burn demonstration in early October were sworn to secrecy on the preliminary results of the burn, which measured the overall environmental impact of sprinklered versus non-sprinklered home fires.
Here’s a hint, though: A home with sprinklers is a lot kinder to the environment than one without, especially in the event of a fire.
While that probably comes as no surprise, the real eye-opener promises to be the quantitative data gathered from each burn — the first time such information has been scientifically evaluated in terms of environmental impact. The burn, co-sponsored by commercial property insurer FM Global and the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition, was described by Gary Keith, HFSC chair, as "the ultimate side-by-side burn."
The research intends to establish the types, quantity, and duration of air and water pollutants released from a home fire, as well as the water usage from fire sprinklers and firefighters’ hoses. It also plans to measure the environmental impact resulting from burning household furnishings and finish material, as well as disposing the fire-damaged contents of a home. The research also hopes to quantify the carbon footprint associated with rebuilding a burnt home. FM Global officials say they hope to make the findings available sometime early in 2010.
About 50 observers, including a delegation from NFPA, attended the Oct. 1 event, held at FM Global’s research campus in West Glocester, Rhode Island. Each burn test was conducted on a fully furnished living room, and ran for 10 minutes before firefighters extinguished the remaining fire. The fire in the sprinklered room was controlled by the sprinkler and resulted in minimal damage; the unsprinklered room was destroyed.
If one definition of "green" is any technology that has the effect of minimizing environmental impact, then sprinklers are decidedly green — the research results will tell us just how green. "We want to make the point that sprinklers are an important environmental consideration for the green movement," Keith says, "and can be considered a positive aspect of green construction."
— Scott Sutherland
HOME FIRE SPRINKLERS
A detailed study of one Maryland community is good news for home fire sprinkler advocates
Home fire sprinklers save lives, cut property loss from fire, and cost less than $2 a square foot to install.
That’s the bottom line in Prince George’s County, Maryland, according to "Benefits of Residential Fire Sprinklers," (PDF, 400K) a report released in August that analyzes the county’s experience with the single-family-dwelling fire sprinkler ordinance it enacted in 1992. The report, which covers a 15-year period, was a joint effort of the nonprofit Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition; the Prince George’s County, Maryland, Fire/EMS Department; the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute; and the Maryland State Fire Marshal’s Office.
The study, prepared by Steve Weatherby, vice-president of construction for The Holladay Corporation in Washington, D.C., concludes that the "most obvious benefit of the ordinance is the direct impact that home fire sprinkler systems have made in saving lives and reducing fire-related injuries." During the period studied, Prince George’s County had fires in 13,494 single-family homes or townhouses. Fires in unsprinklered homes killed 101 civilians and injured 328. No civilians died and only six were injured in fires in sprinklered homes. In addition, sprinklers cut property loss in such fires almost in half.
To determine whether sprinklers added significantly to the cost of a home, Weatherby also interviewed several Prince George’s County sprinkler contractors, who told him that the per-square-foot cost to install sprinklers in single-family homes in the county had dropped to less than $2 per square foot. This is consistent with a recent Fire Protection Research Foundation study that found the average cost of residential sprinkler installation in the United States is $1.61 per sprinklered square foot.
These findings appear to refute two arguments the nation’s home builders have made in an effort to persuade members of the International Code Council to rescind the sprinkler requirement included in the 2009 edition of the International Residential Code® (IRC) at the ICC’s annual meeting and code development hearings, held recently in Baltimore, Maryland. According to a policy statement published by the National Association of Home Builders on its website, www.nahb.org, residential sprinklers would significantly increase the cost of building a home, and the need for residential sprinklers in one- and two-family homes is "unsubstantiated."
To demonstrate the efficacy of residential sprinklers, the Maryland Fire & Rescue Institute conducted a live burn to coincide with the release of the report. Two 8-by-8-foot (2-by-2-meter) rooms were built and furnished, and one was equipped with a single sprinkler. Nine seconds after a fire was started in the unprotected room, the smoke alarm activated. In three minutes, flashover occurred. A fire started in the sprinklered room activated its smoke alarm at eight seconds. Once the temperature near the sprinkler reached approximately 150oF (66oC), the sprinkler activated and controlled the fire.
Home builders also argue that smoke alarms alone provide enough fire protection in homes. While there can be no doubt that smoke alarms have played a major role in reducing the number of fire deaths over the past two decades, approximately 3,000 people still die in home fires every year, even though about 95 percent of U.S. homes have smoke alarms.
"As a builder and fire officer, I still can’t understand why there is continued objection to mandatory residential fire sprinklers," says Weatherby, who is also a captain in his local volunteer fire department. "I hope that the study I produced will help reinforce the life-saving benefits of fire sprinklers, and make an impact with the individuals who are working against mandatory fire sprinkler requirements."
NFPA President James Shannon hopes so, too. "There is no magic bullet solution to the problem of fire deaths," notes Shannon in this issue’s "First Word." "But it would be illogical and indefensible for us not to work hard for the application of a technology that is available, affordable, and proven to be extraordinarily effective in protecting lives from fire."
For a copy of the Prince George’s report, visit www.HomeFireSprinkler.org.
NCD head urges further disabilities awareness for safety community
In an emergency, do you know where to find people with disabilities in case they need assistance?
If you send out a warning, can you be sure people with disabilities, including people who are blind or deaf, get the message?
Can your rescue equipment accommodate the disabled? Can your emergency shelters?
Those were just a few of the questions posed by Michael Collins during his recent visit to NFPA headquarters, part of a Fire Prevention Week talk he gave on emergency preparedness for people with disabilities. Collins, who became permanently disabled in a ski racing accident in 1988, is executive director of the National Council on Disability in Washington, D.C., a member of NFPA’s Fire Safety for People with Disabilities Task Force, and former executive director of California’s State Independent Living Council (SILC). Collins urged everyone in the fire- and life-safety communities to "act as an ambassador" on behalf of the disabled, for disabilities-related codes, and for procedures that consider people with disabilities in the event of an emergency. Emergency preparedness for people with disabilities will be one of the key topics at NCD’s National Summit on Disability Policy, which will be held July 26–27 in Washington, D.C. The event is scheduled to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. For more information on the event, visit www.ncd.gov.
A few of Collins’ observations:
"We’ve all got to take care of ourselves. The things I’ve learned make me realize we can’t procrastinate. We have to take charge of ourselves, our lives, and our own families. Because nobody else is going to do it for us. And that’s exactly what emergency preparedness, fire prevention, and fire safety are all about."
"You can be an ambassador. Not just for fire safety but for all kinds of hazard prevention. You can look out for the vulnerable people in your community. I am one of those vulnerable people. I live alone. I live on the eleventh floor of my apartment building. I don’t know my neighbors on the floors below me. I don’t know if they smoke fire-safe cigarettes. I do know the building is sprinklered. I hear the building holds fire drills occasionally, but they’re held during the day when everyone is at work. One time there was a false alarm at night. If I’m at home in bed and there’s no one to help me, then that’s where I stay. I heard the alarm. But nobody came to knock on my door."
"Wildfires are an area of particular concern for people with disabilities. I had a meeting in San Diego back in October, 2003. After the meeting I decided to stick around an extra night. I woke up at seven in the morning—I opened the curtains and it was still dark. There was smoke and it completely covered the sky. You could see a big wall of flames moving west and coming toward our hotel. This is why I was at the meeting: to talk about preparing for this kind of hazard. So I decided to get into my van and drive around the area and observe what was happening.
"There were shelters set up [though many were not accessible to people with physical disabilities]. People were being evacuated, roads were being closed. I got trapped east of San Diego for a night with thousands of other people because they closed the freeways. After about nine or ten hours of being shuffled from area to area to avoid the fires, I was determined to get back to San Diego, back to my hotel and my medication. There weren’t any open routes in California, so I drove through Mexico in the middle of the night with a quarter of a tank of gas and no map...I ended up going through Tijuana at three in the morning. I got back to my hotel at about 4 a.m. A lot of people were in the same situation. It was a major event.
"[SILC] followed this up with a report on wildfires in California. We went out and talked to people with disabilities who were impacted by the fire, who hadn’t been evacuated and hadn’t been notified, and did a report on it. That report ["The Impact of the 2003 California Wildfires on People with Disabilities"] is still referred to today when we talk about people with disabilities and wildfires."