Author(s): Beverly Ford. Published on October 1, 2016.

Desert Success

Jim Ford, the steward of the landmark home sprinkler ordinance in Scottsdale, Arizona, talks about the rewards of 30 years of being a fire-protected community


WHEN IT COMES TO FIRE SPRINKLERS, Jim Ford helped write the book—or at least the ordinance and the follow-up studies—that changed fire codes across the nation.

Ford, a longtime member of the fire service in Scottsdale, Arizona, took an early interest in fire prevention. In 1975, when he just 19 years old, he joined the Rural Metro Fire Department, which provided fire and medical services to Scottsdale and many unincorporated areas outside of Phoenix. As one of the youngest full-time firefighters on the force, he rose through the ranks to become fire marshal in 1989 and was later named deputy chief following a transition to the newly created Scottsdale Fire Department in 2005. Today, he serves as both deputy chief and fire marshal to Scottsdale, a 184-square-mile city along the northeast border of Phoenix amid the rugged Sonoran Desert.

It was an event in 1973, however, that would serve as the centerpiece for much of Ford’s career. That was the year the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control issued a stunning report on fire loss in the United States.The report, titled “America Burning,” concluded that the country needed to do more to prevent losses associated with fires by better educating the public in fire prevention and by providing better training to firefighters. In a stinging rebuke of public apathy, the report concluded that “the striking aspect of the nation’s fire problem is the indifference with which Americans confront the subject.”

As blunt and critical as they were, the findings hit the right chord. The report prompted the creation of the U.S. Fire Administration, the National Fire Academy, the Center for Fire Research, and the National Fire Incident Reporting System. It also addressed the high death rate among U.S. firefighters, leading to improvements in firefighting equipment and training along with the creation of new building and fire codes.

By the 1980s, as the once-sleepy desert community of Scottsdale blossomed into a city of more than 100,000 residents, the community’s firefighters began thinking about how they could curtail fires, not only in large buildings but in homes as well. The sobering findings of “America Burning” were a constant part of the background for those conversations, and Ford and his colleagues were determined to do whatever they could to minimize the threat from fire.

Scottsdale Fire appartatus

Reducing the home fire problem with sprinklers has helped the Scottsdale Fire Department become more effective in its all-hazards response. Photograph: NFPA

In 1985, the city passed an ordinance requiring every commercial and multi-family building to be outfitted with fire sprinklers. The ordinance also required that single-family homes built after January 1, 1986, be fully outfitted with approved fire sprinklers. Sprinklers are also required in major remodeling projects. The ordinance proved to be a watershed event in fire prevention, not just in Scottsdale but around the country. “Scottsdale was among the first communities in the country to draw a line in the sand and say, ‘This is our community—if you build in our city, you will protect what you build,’” said Ford, noting that the Scottsdale ordinance became a model of fire safety for communities nationwide. Approximately 85–90 percent of the commercial occupancies and nearly 50,000 homes are now protected by sprinklers in Scottsdale—more than half the homes in the city.

Ford added that city officials have often been willing to take unconventional approaches to addressing problems, such as building a greenbelt to serve as a flood control area instead of the stark and ugly cement channels seen in other cities that were suggested by the Army Corps of Engineers. When it came to fire safety, the thought process was similar, Ford said. City officials recognized that Scottsdale needed an ordinance to protect residential property, since more fires occur in residences than anywhere else.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the passing of Scottsdale’s ordinance, and Ford recently spoke with NFPA Journal about the challenge of making the city a “fire-protected community,” acknowledging that the fight is far from over. The battle, he said, “is just as heated as it ever was.”

The story of the Scottsdale, AZ, home fire sprinkler ordinance
In 1985, the city of Scottsdale, Arizona, passed an ordinance to sprinkler all of its new homes. Today, more than half of Scottsdale's homes are sprinklered. Jim Ford, fire marshal with the Scottsdale Fire Department, discusses how the ordinance has significantly decreased the city's fire losses without diminishing the necessity of the fire service.

What prompted Scottsdale to adopt a sprinkler ordinance in the first place?

In 1975 we passed our first ordinance, which said if you build anything over 7,500 square feet or anything over three stories, it had to have automatic sprinklers. That was a direct result of the “America Burning” report. The report said that if we want to improve fire services and if we want to address the fire problem in America, here’s what you have to do. One of those things was to change our built environment. Sprinklering properties wasn’t the only thing we did. We improved our training. We tried to improve our equipment. We did a lot more outreach. There’s a whole lot of things “America Burning” addressed that we did.

The impetus for all those changes came In April 1982, when our chief, Lou Witzeman, was able to talk a developer of residential homes into sprinklering two houses. It showed that the concept of residential sprinklers could work. We passed our first comprehensive sprinkler ordinance in Scottsdale three years later, in June 1985. That ordinance said if you build in the city of Scottsdale and you increase our fire risk, you're going to protect that property with sprinklers. The requirement for sprinklers in single-family homes went into effect six months later, in January 1986. That's how we started building a fire-protected community.

How did Scottsdale manage to bring so many diverse groups—builders, planners, firefighters, and other interests—to the table and get them all to agree to a protective sprinkler ordinance?

We worked with a true coalition. We had our water department there, we had our building department there, we had our planners and the development community there, we had the insurance industry there. That model turned out to be very successful recently in California, which passed a statewide sprinkler regulation. You bring everybody into the coalition and you educate and explain and look at the options. That’s what we did in 1985. And it’s important to acknowledge the local leaders, policy makers, and elected officials for the courage they’ve shown to implement this and to keep it in place over the years.

What were some of the tradeoffs you agreed to?

When we passed our ordinance, we looked to see what we could include that wouldn’t necessarily pay for sprinklers in the buildings, but at least offset them. Today we call those things “design freedoms.” One of those was hydrants. We looked at the fire flows for sprinklered versus non-sprinkled buildings and determined that we needed less water for sprinklered complexes. We reduced the fire flows a little bit and we increased the hydrant spacing. Hydrants had been spaced 330 feet apart for commercial buildings and 660 feet apart for residential, and we basically doubled that, to 700 feet for commercial and 1,200 feet for residential. That represented a big cost savings for developers and the fire department was ok with it too.

What other accommodations did Scottsdale make?

On residential construction, we put sprinklers in the garages too because we have a lot of garage fires. We took out a requirement that there be a separation between the garage and the house that would keep a fire from spreading for at least an hour. We've never counted on that in a residential house fire. The self-closing door between the garage and house still has to be there, but it doesn't have to be a fire-rated door. We told builders if they gave us the corrective stuff, we'd take away what we could.

What was the opposition to the ordinance?

We actually got opposition from both sides—firefighters and homebuilders. The fire service didn't like the reduction in fire flows and the increase in hydrant spacing, but we tested those things and they really had little or no impact at all. The builders didn't want the ordinance to be mandatory and they still don't want it mandatory. That's still up in the air today. When we looked at it, we realized that if it wasn't mandatory for everybody then we could not provide design freedoms. We could not make our streets narrower, we could not increase the hydrant space and reduce the fire flow because some houses might not be sprinklered while others would be. We couldn't set the system up for the best-case scenario, so we had to set it up for a worst-case scenario. That's why we made it mandatory—it would level the playing field for every developer out there. At the time, the builders actually said that, though they didn’t like the mandatory component, as long as nobody did more than Scottsdale they didn't need to oppose the ordinance. Of course, that's all changed dramatically with the approach that the National Association of Home Builders has taken, but at the time we had the buy-in from the home building community, the developers, and the contractors.

How has the homebuilders’ approach changed?

Our city council decided that public safety is the council's responsibility. But now some state legislatures, including Arizona's, are siding with the homebuilders' argument that the decision to sprinkler should be an individual choice and that the homeowner’s wishes carry more weight than a community's ability to set public safety protection laws. We had our ordinance in place already, so that shift didn't affect us. It also didn't affect any community that had a similar ordinance in place before the state legislature got involved. It was validation that NFPA and the International Code Council followed Scottsdale’s lead and put sprinkler requirements for one- and two-family homes in their codes.

Is there still opposition to the Scottsdale ordinance?

The only opposition I get is from the homebuilders’ association. They say, “We don't think this should be mandatory but we know you’re not going to change.” In Scottsdale, there's very little opposition to our ordinance now because it has worked so well.

What are some of the ways the ordinance has worked?

We have more calls for service compared to other cities our size, but our overall fire loss is lower. We still have fires, but we don’t have nearly the size or number of what other communities do, because about 95 percent of our fires in properties protected by automatic sprinklers are controlled by one or two sprinklers. Right now, we're just shy of having 50,000 homes sprinklered because we've been working on this so long. We don’t tie up a lot of fire department equipment and personnel, either. The impact is much less.

Can you quantify that lower fire loss?

The real key is when you look at fire loss per capita, which is the dollar impact of those incidents. A recent independent evaluation identified our fire loss at $7.31 per capita. Compare that to the Western region’s $36 per capita, and the national average of $27 per capita—we’re a fraction of those levels. We have slightly more incidents than comparably sized communities, but we have a much better record of reducing the impact. That's what sprinklers can do, and that’s what we focus on. We know we can't stop all the incidents, but we've greatly reduced the impact of the ones that occur.

Have there been other benefits?

There was an initial study done on fire hydrants and water flow requirements, and our water department found that with hydrant spacing and our infrastructure, it would save in the neighborhood of $7 million to $8 million if we required all buildings to be sprinklered. That’s a huge savings for the community. Also, because of the reduced fire problem, the fire department can do a lot more for the community. We fully embrace the all-hazards approach to response and community risk reduction. We do hazmat. We do community outreach. We do emergency medical services, which is anywhere from 60–80 percent of our calls now. We’re providing a much better level of service on the type of calls that regularly impact our community. All of our firefighters are medically trained. Our trucks are staffed with four people—an engineer, a captain, and two firefighters—and two of those four are advanced life care paramedics. Every unit is connected directly to the emergency room. Those units can provide a higher level of service to our residents and our visitors.

Has there been a reduction in fire services as a result of building a fire-protected community?

This is something that comes up all the time. One of the arguments against a sprinkler ordinance is that sprinklers mean you’ll lose fire services. But we are an all-hazards emergency service, and you don't change the infrastructure that was there before you adopted an ordinance. You still have your existing hydrants, you still have the existing streets, and you still have your existing structures. That all stays. Our downtown is all older infrastructure that doesn't fall under the 1986 ordinance. You still need fire and emergency services to cover all of that.

What is it like to fight a fire in a home with sprinklers versus a home without?

If you have two houses side-by-side, one sprinklered and one not, the one with sprinklers is going to be controlled with one or two sprinkler heads flowing 10 or 15 gallons of water per minute until we can get there. It keeps the fire small. The home that's not sprinklered will require a full response. Our guys will be there a long time, and when they walk in the front door they'll be flowing 150 to 200 gallons per minute per hose line. If it turns into an extended event, it will be 1,000 gallons per minute minimum. So we will flow 10, 20, 50 times more water on the non-sprinklered house than on the sprinklered house.

Has the ordinance help cut fire deaths in Scottsdale?

Yes—we didn’t have a single death in a sprinklered home in the 15 years between 1986 and 2000. During that period, we had 13 fire fatalities in homes without sprinklers and at least 13 saves in sprinklered properties including homes. If we weren’t protected the way we are, I honestly believe those 13 saves would have been fatalities. That means we would have been right at the national average for cities our size. We essentially cut our fatality rate in half during those first 15 years. In the next 15 years, between 2001 and this year, we’ve had one death in a sprinklered home, and that one involved a man with severe physical limitations who started a fire by smoking while using a home oxygen system. And since we passed the ordinance, we’ve never lost a firefighter in Scottsdale.

What challenges does Scottsdale's fire department face now?

Homebuilders are now putting up homes that are 18,000 or 20,000 square feet. How do you design a home sprinkler system that can contain a fire in a mini-mansion? The answer is you can't. For firefighter safety, what we've done in Scottsdale is adjust our ordinance so that now if you build any residential property over 12,000 square feet—which happens to be the definition of a big-box commercial building—we make you sprinkler it to a multi-family limit of protection. I'd much rather my firefighters go into a Home Depot or a Lowe’s or a Walmart than a 15,000-square-foot house where everything is custom and there's a lot of open space. It's much more dangerous for our guys to go into those kinds of structures. So we required homebuilders to increase the fire protection in those buildings. We also put an electric flow switch and bell on every house, so if nobody is home and we have a fire inside, we have at least a local alarm that will activate.

What would you have done differently with Scottsdale’s ordinance?

I wouldn't have gone to 1,200 feet between hydrants—I would have gone to 1,000 feet. I think that would have made it easier for the civil engineers to design the infrastructure. Operationally, it doesn’t make a difference, but it would have made a difference in design. Other than that, I'm pretty satisfied with what we've done.

BEVERLY FORD is a freelancer writer. Top Photograph: iStockPhoto