The van Dijk’s and other burn survivors want their experience to be the catalyst for the inclusion of fire sprinklers in all new homes. However, a powerful group has spent serious dollars preventing that from happening.
By Fred Durso, Jr.
I’m with Kyle, my producer, at a bar near the Inn at Lander, where I’m staying, enjoying a local brew and pop music playing on satellite radio. We’re at a table near the window, the Wyoming sun filtering through it. Men filter in and out of the tight bar, brightened by its white walls, until it’s eventually just us, the bartender, and an older man sitting not too far from us, also at his own table. He seems to be jotting notes, and I don’t know why, but I assume he works there. We eventually start chatting with him. He’s a local politician and he’s friendly, even seems to have a sense of humor. Then, Kyle tells him who we work for and what I do for NFPA. His facial expression changes from jovial, to skeptical.
I tell him that I help NFPA promote the importance of home fire sprinklers, a technology that, I’ve come to realize over the years, is so simple yet so controversial. When it comes to fire sprinklers, the battle lines were drawn years ago. On one side are safety advocates who view sprinklers as the answer to America’s home fire problem. On the other is the opposition, mainly members of the homebuilding industry who view them as pricy and unnecessary.
I explain to the politician that installation costs aren’t as high as he’s likely heard. I recycle one of my favorite lines I’ve heard from sprinkler advocates: you can always dry out something that might have gotten wet from a sprinkler. You can’t unburn things.
The politician’s response to me? “That’s good rhetoric.”
He interjects with arguments I’ve heard over and over. Fire sprinklers in homes are more trouble than they’re worth. They constantly leak. Sprinkler protection, he tells me, would be best suited for the historic buildings aligning Lander’s Main Street. They’re worthy of protection, due to their age and history. But not homes, or apparently the people in them.
I then tell him what brought us to Lander, how we’re interviewing a local family who lost two kids from a home fire. He somberly says he remembers the incident and how horrific it all was. I want to tell him how fire sprinklers have already prevented tragedies like this on countless occasions across the country. I guess the conversation got too real—or maybe, there wasn’t a way for him to counter the point that fire sprinklers save lives—because the politician then gave us a warm goodbye and left.
As with other opponents to sprinklers in homes, this politician apparently had trouble looking beyond the myths related to fire sprinklers—such as cost and leaks—to see their life-saving ability. Serious dollars are being spent to make sure that’s the case. There is a powerful force at work making sure this technology stays out of new homes.
Think about the many places you visit frequently. Work. Restaurants. Movie theaters. Hotels. Many of these places are protected by fire sprinklers. Why, then, don’t new homes include the same level of protection you’re seeing elsewhere? The place where, statistically speaking, you’re at the greatest risk of suffering injury or worse from fire?
Fire sprinklers are actually a requirement for all new homes. If a one- or two-family home is being built using U.S. model building codes, these codes have a requirement to sprinkler these dwellings. This requirement means nothing if states or jurisdictions don’t adopt the requirement and make it law. Some places have embraced home fire sprinklers. All new homes in California, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., have adopted that requirement to sprinkler its new homes. Hundreds of other communities are doing the same. Their reason? Research tells us that fire sprinklers reduce your risk of dying in home fires by about 80 percent. Smoke alarms alone cut this risk by only half.
Fire sprinklers also tackle one of the biggest problems impacting fire death and injury: complacency.
“We see a level of complacency in the public because, frankly, they don’t think a fire is going to happen to them or they pay less attention to it,” says Lorraine Carli, NFPA’s vice president of Outreach and Advocacy.
There are steps people can take to stay safe from fire at home; keep an eye on what’s cooking in the kitchen and make sure you have working smoke alarms, for instance, says Carli. But fire sprinklers take into account human error or anything unexpected that might cause a fire, and react quickly to it. “Our ability to solve the home fire problem really lies with our ability to get more new, one- and two-family homes sprinklered so that we can further reduce the home fire problem,” she says.
If the solution to the home fire problem is out there, why isn’t it being embraced nationwide? According to a 2016 report by ProPublica, a nonprofit, independent news organization, the homebuilding industry spent more than $500 million over a 10-year period that successfully prevented requirements for fire sprinklers in 25 states. This industry argues that such requirements aren’t necessary since, it says, fire sprinklers are costly. Sprinklers, it adds, will impact the housing market and price new homebuyers out of an affordable home. Research has countered all of these claims. NFPA’s national average on sprinklering new homes places installation costs at only one to two percent of a home’s entire construction cost. A few people I’ve chatted with who have sprinklered their homes paid more for their kitchen’s granite countertops.
Using their political power, the homebuilding industry is also making a convincing case to circumvent a state’s code-adoption process. Instead of going through a state entity responsible for creating and updating its codes, such as a code board, the industry is using its power to help create anti-sprinkler laws at the legislative level.
“The code process works very well, and the codes are created through a consensus process by experts that come together and put everything on the table and come up with the minimum level of safety,” says Carli. “To then bypass that process and go directly to a legislative action, to say you should prohibit sprinkler requirements, is a very dangerous precedent. We've now seen that in a number of states across the country. It makes our work that much harder.”
Burn survivors across the country are becoming some of the biggest and loudest advocates to help fight the opposition. They’re testifying at legislative hearings. They’re putting their lives out there for the sake of saving others. They’re getting people’s attention on fire sprinklers in a way that statistics on fire can’t, says Amy Acton with the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors.
“Data is powerful, but unless you can help people understand the human impact, [fire sprinklers are] kind of a hard sell,” she says. “The stop-in-your-tracks message that the survivor’s voice brings is compelling. The more we can do that, I think the better.”
Feike has become one of those people. “If you think about safety nowadays, how many airbags are in a car? This all started with people dying. It sounds cruel, but not until people saw the need for there to be safety features in this car, that’s when they put it in there and made it mandatory.”
This wave of activism from burn survivors and others has made its way across America, including Wyoming. A group called the Wyoming Fire Sprinkler Coalition is currently raising awareness of fire sprinklers, a technology that’s been compared to having a firefighter in your home 24/7.
“We were doing a live interview one time about a very delicate situation where we had a fatality within the state,” says Justin Smith, community risk reduction officer at the City of Casper, Wyoming, Fire and EMS Department and chair of the Wyoming coalition. “[The reporter] served up the perfect question about how fire sprinklers would have changed this fire. I think that's a good example of how sometimes our educational efforts are accidentally successful."
The Wyoming Fire Sprinkler Coalition now joins 30 other North American coalitions, including one in Canada’s British Columbia, showcasing a massive movement in support of fire sprinklers. Even a member at the Salt Lake City Burn Center has been involved in events initiated by her state’s fire sprinkler coalition.
“I think whether it's Feike or whether it's anyone, the point is you have patients that have a life-changing event that could have been avoided,” says Annette Matherly, a community outreach burn disaster coordinator at the center. “We see heartbreak here on a daily basis. It's not just Feike. It's daily on our unit. And the thought that all of those could have been prevented ... kind of makes my stomach sick and my heart sad.”
A blanket featuring the van Dijk children
It’s my final day in Lander, and I’m relaxing with the family in their backyard. There’s a small creek running through it, and a nice plot of land on the side of the home producing some fresh produce: sage, peppers, dinosaur kale, cilantro, sugar snap peas, spinach, cabbage, and beats. Noelle’s painting as mellow music emanates from her nearby phone. Feike feeds me burgers made with venison and other game. I watch Abel, their oldest son, play with the twins. He didn’t experience any physical injuries from the fire, but was impacted by it.
“If we go anywhere, the first thing he'll ask me is, ‘Mommy, where are the exits? Can I open this window? Where is it safe for me to sleep?’" says Noelle. "He started that at five years old.”
Remmy (left) and Abel inside their Lander, Wyoming, home
Abel, they tell me, always comes to the defense of Remmy, the twin visibly injured in the fire, if he’s getting picked on by other kids. All of this tells me that while this family has come as far as they have, they are still a family in healing. That’s the thing about survivors—no matter what your previous or current pain might be, you find the power within to persevere.
There are also the memories of their clan who are no longer here. If the kids bring up Zephy and Noah, their parents give them a large blanket filled with family photos including the boys. They show me the blanket, filled with photos of happier times. “I see a picture of [Zephy and Noah], and I'm kind of in a state of fear and denial and anger still,” says Noelle. “But I can take a blanket out and cope with it for 40 minutes if I have to, if that makes sense.”
Noelle then walks to a wall inside their home, and points to photo frames. Instead of group shots of the whole family inside the frame, there’s stock photography of generic people that would typically accompany a purchased frame. “You can see …other people's children in there,” says Noelle. “It's kind of sad, but you do what you can, when you can. Just putting these up is a big step for me, because I'm preparing myself to have pictures of my kids.”
“We're definitely aware of the fragility of life, and every minute spent with our children, with our family, with our loved ones is extremely precious, because it can change so quick,” adds Feike.
I leave the family, but technology lessens the emotional and physical distance I feel from them. Feike, an avid Boston sports fan, will send me random texts about the latest developments. One of his Facebook posts was a poignant wedding anniversary wish to Noelle he sent while out of town on an assignment for the fire service. It reads: “Eleven years married, thank you for being so incredibly tolerant and patient with me. I'm sorry, I won't be able to celebrate our anniversary together this year. But you got to know that my love burns for you. And that is one fire I will fight for so it will continue burning, and one I never want to see extinguished.”
Fred Durso, Jr., is communications manager for NFPA's Fire Sprinkler Initiative. "The Survivors" is produced by the National Fire Protection Association in cooperation with the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors.
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