Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on November 1, 2017.

Setting an Example

How Ernest Mitchell, former U.S. Fire Administrator, convinced FEMA to include home fire sprinklers in its emergency housing


When the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) began making safety changes to its emergency housing units around 2008, initial suggestions from one of its divisions, the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), to include residential sprinklers were dismissed as too big a political risk in the aftermath of Katrina. The issue was all but forgotten until longtime sprinkler advocate Ernest Mitchell was appointed U.S. Fire Administrator in 2011 and fervently took on the cause. Safety for disaster victims was the key reason for his crusade, Mitchell said, but there were other motives as well.

“I thought it would benefit the nation’s fire safety if the federal government demonstrated leadership and set the example” on sprinklers, Mitchell said in a recent interview with NFPA Journal. “I’ve found over time that a lot of people just aren’t aware of residential sprinklers—in fact, there were staff at FEMA at the time who came up to me and said, ‘I didn’t know you could put these in your home.’ But installing sprinklers in every home would have the biggest impact on reducing fire death in this country. I know it’s not going to happen overnight, but we need to start somewhere. I felt if we could start it on a federal level, others might adopt it.”

Mitchell took every opportunity to talk to agency leaders, including Craig Fugate, then FEMA’s administrator, about the need for home fire sprinklers. He emphasized how modern homes and furnishings are more combustible and lead to faster flashover times, giving occupants mere minutes to escape. In meetings, he presented NFPA statistics on how sprinklers increase survival rates, and educated FEMA staff on how residential sprinklers work, as well as existing NFPA codes and standards. He collected and spoke about FEMA’s lackluster fire statistics in its housing units—by FEMA’s count, from 2005 to 2009, 186 fires occurred in FEMA-deployed emergency housing units, resulting in 14 deaths and 18 injuries.

It was a slow process. With the Katrina lawsuits still fresh, FEMA’s lawyers were reticent to make significant alterations to the new iteration of emergency housing stock, Mitchell said. In designing the manufactured home units, FEMA had strictly followed housing codes for manufactured homes developed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which permitted but did not require residential sprinklers.

“My perception was FEMA felt that if it provided units exactly to the HUD standard, it would take away its liability for how they were built,” Mitchell said. “If there were some issue with the manufactured housing, FEMA did not want to be seen as the regulator of safety standards for those units, and they did not want to be tied to it.” Those concerns stalled the sprinkler effort for years. Lawrence McKenna, an engineer with USFA, agreed with Mitchell’s assessment about FEMA’s initial caution around fire sprinklers.

“Anything away from HUD code was deemed a huge risk for (FEMA) politically,” he said. “It took several years of Ernie working with Craig to build trust, extolling the virtues of sprinklers, the fire hazards, and potential to get Craig to issue a directive that we do this.”

But by 2014, the path forward began to clear. A new FEMA general counsel without the scars of Katrina was appointed, and Fugate began actively pushing the agency post-Katrina to adopt a more responsive, survivor-centric approach. “Craig wanted the agency to focus on what can we do to best assist and comfort the survivors, and the sprinkler issue certainly fit with that,” Mitchell said.

By then, Mitchell had been fire administrator long enough to gain the trust of FEMA’s senior staff and was making inroads with his message. One day in early 2015, Fugate, a former firefighter, looked at Mitchell and declared his support for finding a way to install sprinkler systems in FEMA’s emergency housing units. He formed a committee comprised of various groups—lawyers, engineers, code officials, the acquisition department, and others—to iron out logistics and build broad support for the idea within the agency.

As presidential appointees, both Mitchell and Fugate worked with purpose, knowing their time in government would likely end after the 2016 election. Over countless meetings through 2014, the disparate parties signed off on a plan to install sprinklers in FEMA emergency housing.

“Even with a directive from the top, changing the status quo in the federal government is a slow process—people always have something else to do,” Mitchell explained. “Once you get them to think it’s a good idea, then you have get them motivated to take action instead of pushing it off to do other things. You’ve got to get it to the top of the pile of 10,000 other things people are working on.”

JESSE ROMAN is associate editor for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: U.S. Fire Administration