Author(s): Lorraine Carli. Published on April 5, 2022.

Bringing the Fire

An innovative new tool uses virtual reality to convey the power of side-by-side burns—and to demonstrate the essential value of home fire sprinklers 

One of the most powerful tools for demonstrating the effectiveness of home fire sprinklers is the side-by-side burn, where two identical rooms are set on fire. The only variation is that one room includes a single home fire sprinkler. And as every demonstration vividly illustrates, that sprinkler makes all the difference.

This type of demonstration isn’t always possible, however. Some communities don’t have the resources necessary to conduct side-by-side burns. Sometimes environmental issues or other practical challenges get in the way. The pandemic has forced communities to cancel demonstrations due to gathering limits.

But a new virtual tool offers a promising alternative to live burns. The Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition (HFSC), a group focused on educational outreach around sprinklers, has developed an innovative virtual reality (VR) home fire sprinkler education technology that allows users to experience the drama of a side-by-side burn, without the logistical challenges of staging an actual burn. The VR Fire & Sprinkler Demo kit utilizes VR headsets to provide an immersive 3D experience in two separate rooms; a 2D version has been developed for web-based on-demand use. The project is funded by a 2020 Fire Prevention & Safety grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and by a seed grant from State Farm.

Replicating an actual side-by-side burn is no small challenge. Experiencing the power of fire up close is scary—you witness it, and you also feel it. I saw my first side-by-side burn demonstration about 15 years ago at an HFSC meeting, and I was struck by how fast the fire moved. In the unsprinklered room, the smoke and flames roared on well past the sound of the smoke alarm, and the room reached flashover in about two and half minutes. In the room with the fire sprinkler, the smoke alarm beeped less than a minute after small flames began to show from a wastebasket fire, and within another minute or so you could hear the pop of the sprinkler head followed by the flow of water. Shortly after, the small fire was practically extinguished, reduced to a smolder. The lesson was clear: sprinklers are the solution to reducing home fire loss. Would a virtual experience pack the same punch?

The short answer is yes, it does. At a recent demo of the kit, I sat in a chair wearing the VR headset. The demo began, and suddenly I was in a room where a fire ignited. I had 360-degree access; I could look into every corner, floor to ceiling, and see what was happening. In about 30 seconds, I had the sensation of being in the middle of the room as it burned. I was relieved and astonished that I didn’t actually get soaking wet when the sprinkler went off.

As fire safety advocates, we champion these demonstrations to educate people on the life safety benefits of home fire sprinklers. The demos reinforce two key facts: the civilian fire death rate is 89 percent lower in structures with installed fire sprinklers, and the rate of firefighter injuries is 60 percent lower in home fires with sprinklers than in fires without sprinklers.

The VR Fire & Sprinkler Demo kit will be introduced and evaluated through some our Fire Sprinkler Initiative State Coalitions beginning this spring, but it already strikes me as the next great tool for home fire sprinkler education. The key is its portability; if you can’t get people to the fire, bring the fire to them. Consider how this tool can be used with policymakers, schools, community groups, and other stakeholders who can drive the use of home fire sprinklers in new homes. This novel approach will also help fire departments reach key decision makers in their jurisdictions with the facts about today’s house fires and the unparalleled protection afforded by fire sprinklers.

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