Author(s): Lorraine Carli. Published on October 19, 2021.

Action Now

The next significant step toward improving home fire safety will require resolve and urgency. What are we waiting for? 

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition (HFSC), an organization devoted to saving lives by educating key audiences—including the fire service, policymakers, builders, and the public—about the benefits of home fire sprinklers in new homes. It was created when NFPA, along with the National Fire Sprinkler Association and the American Fire Sprinkler Association, joined forces and messaging and grew to include other organizations that shared the same safety goals.

RELATED: Listen to an NFPA podcast about home fire sprinklers and 25 years of the HFSC:

While the number of homes with sprinklers has grown in the United States over the past 25 years, the coalition’s efforts have also encountered formidable opposition that has slowed our progress. Annual home fire deaths in the US have hovered around 3,000 for many years now. We have reached a point where the work remaining to reduce this number is hard, but that doesn’t mean we stop or tell ourselves that the progress we’ve made is good enough. Further progress requires renewed resolve and the kind of urgency that existed when the founding members of HFSC launched their efforts 25 years ago.

To move forward, we must sometimes look back. In the push for more home fire sprinklers, it helps to look to 1973, when the landmark “America Burning” report was published. Created by a national commission that evaluated the country’s fire problem, the findings in “America Burning” included a call for support to develop a sprinkler that would be acceptable to all Americans for use in homes. Sprinklers had proved their worth since the 1800s in industrial and commercial uses, and the “America Burning” authors reasoned, correctly, that sprinklers would make a significant difference if they could be installed easily and affordably in homes. In 1975, NFPA issued NFPA 13D, Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems in One- and Two-Family Dwellings and Manufactured Homes. Since then, every report on fire safety in the US has touted sprinklers as the proven way to significantly reduce the nation’s fire problem, which occurs mainly in homes.

An important new report recently released by NFPA reinforces the need for home fire sprinklers and takes the discussion one step further. “Fire Safety in the United States Since 1980: Through the Lens of the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem,” created with the same big-picture scope as “America Burning,” underscores the need to overcome sprinkler opposition and do more with greater intensity if we want to advance fire safety. The report notes successes in reducing loss in a number of occupancies, including hospitals, office buildings, and apartment buildings, but paints a more troubling picture of the home fire problem. It does, however, look at safety strategies used in other occupancies—including technology, codes and standards, enforcement, and education—as ways to develop plans of action to reduce home fires.

The facts are clear. Eighty percent of fire deaths happen in homes. If you have a home fire today, you are more likely to die in that fire than you were in 1980. Today’s homes are built with unprotected lightweight construction, have open floor plans, and are filled with furniture made with highly combustible synthetic materials. If fire strikes, it spreads fast, making escape nearly impossible after a few short minutes. If you have sprinklers, your risk of dying in a home fire decreases by 80 percent. Operating smoke alarms further improve your chance of escape.

Reports like “America Burning” and “Fire Safety in the US” are necessary for illuminating problems and identifying solutions. What is more important is to heed their recommendations so that the next report can trumpet the results of our action rather than telling us again what needs to be done.

Lorraine Carli is vice president of Outreach and Advocacy for NFPA. Illustration: Michael Hoeweler