Author(s): Fred Durso. Published on November 4, 2014.

WHEN HE TALKS ABOUT RESIDENTIAL SPRINKLERS, the fire in State Fire Marshal Stephen Coan’s voice becomes just as intense as the high-profile blazes that have shocked Massachusetts this year. In March, two Boston firefighters were killed battling a severe residential fire, and in July a residential fire in the city of Lowell claimed the lives of seven people, including three children.

“I have responded to hundreds of fatal fires in my state, and it’s hard to rationalize how decisions [on mandatory home fire sprinkler installations] can be based strictly on cost while not recognizing the effect fire has on our society,” says Coan, 63, who has headed the Massachusetts Department of Fire Services since its creation in 1995.

Coan has been a tireless force in the push for state sprinkler requirements. His office holds a seat on the state’s Board of Building Regulations and Standards (BBRS), an 11-member group that adopts building regulations and administers provisions of the state building code, which uses the International Residential Code (IRC) as its backbone. Though he urged the BBRS to maintain the code’s sprinkler requirement for one- and two-family homes that first appeared in the IRC’s 2009 edition, the board opted against adopting the sprinkler provision.

Coan didn’t stop there. Aware that the state’s building code includes the Stretch Energy Code, which gives local jurisdictions the ability to adopt more stringent energy provisions than what’s required statewide, he then proposed something similar for home fire sprinklers to the BBRS. “I advocated, as did other members of the Massachusetts Fire Sprinkler Coalition, that the democratic process of our state should be to let this decision [of sprinkler requirements] be made in every city and town across the Commonwealth,” says Coan. “Let this debate be held in town meetings and city council chambers.” Once again, the BBRS voted against it.

Coan shifted his approach. This year, he worked with the Fire Chiefs Association of Massachusetts to initiate legislative bills mirroring the stretch code provision proposed to the BBRS. The sprinkler bills stalled, Coan says, in part through opposition by anti-sprinkler interest groups.

Setbacks only seem to energize Coan for his next effort. As part of a process to update the state building code, the BBRS released a draft white paper, “The Cost and Effectiveness for Health, Safety, and Security of Fire Alarm Systems and Fire Sprinkler Systems in 3 to 6 Unit Residential Buildings,” earlier this year. The report examines the notion of lessening the state’s sprinkler requirements. Joining NFPA at a September meeting with the BBRS about the white paper, Coan blasted the report as “seriously flawed,” arguing that it puts too much emphasis on cost and doesn’t consider the live-saving impact of sprinklers. “Public safety … in my view trumps what I think is a reasonable cost to enhance fire safety for current and future generations,” he says.

Massachusetts Fire Sprinkler Coalition - Fire Marshal Steve Coan speaks at a BBRS meeting


Obtaining public buy-in for sprinklers via education is crucial, Coan says. Sprinkler demonstrations are common occurrences at many of the state’s public events. He’s also mastered the ability of using the media to his advantage—news releases, press conferences, and op-eds on a tragic fire typically include a statement on sprinklers.

“If we pass an ordinance today, we’re not going to dramatically effect fire deaths in 2015 or 2016,” says Coan. “The near-term is not what this is about. We need to require sprinklers today to change the face of fire tomorrow, so we’re not going to see what I’ve seen over the last 20 years. The fire marshal at that time isn’t going to speak to the press about a tragedy where three children died. He or she will talk about how nobody died because of sprinklers.”

FRED DURSO, JR., former NFPA Journal staff writer, is communications manager for NFPA's Fire Sprinkler Initiative.