NFPA's Take: Sprinklers in New Homes: Why Should Firefighters Care?

Fire in the home poses one of the biggest threats to the people in your community. Nearly 3,000 people per year die in U.S. home fires. In 2009, 81 percent of people who died in residential fires, did so in one- and two-family homes. Seventy-eight percent...


Fire in the home poses one of the biggest threats to the people in your community. Nearly 3,000 people per year die in U.S. home fires. In 2009, 81 percent of people who died in residential fires, did so in one- and two-family homes. Seventy-eight percent of all residential structural fireground firefighter deaths occurred in one- and two-family dwellings.

Sprinkler advocates across the country, including the fire service, asked for a coordinated effort to encourage the use of home fire sprinklers. NFPA launched that effort through the "Fire Sprinkler Initiative: Bringing Safety Home" two years ago.

All model safety codes now require the use of home fire sprinklers in new one- and two-family homes. These are minimum standards of safety to protect the people and the responding fire force in the event of fire in the home.

Opponents launched an aggressive campaign to keep the requirement out of the code. Their misleading arguments have been refuted by scientific research; but they have sometimes prevailed due to their political power and influence. To overcome this powerful opposition it is imperative that firefighters understand the importance of the requirement, embrace it, and assist in engaging and providing factual information to stakeholders.

Home fire sprinkler systems are vastly different from the commercial systems. NFPA 13D, Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems in One- and Two-Family Dwellings and Manufactured Homes covers "the design, installation and maintenance of automatic sprinkler systems for protection against fire hazards" in these structures. They are cost effective and efficient life safety systems designed to prevent flashover and improve the chance for occupants to escape or be evacuated. Of special interest to the fire service is the added protection that fire sprinklers provide to firefighter safety. They protect structural stability, allowing fire crews to conduct search and rescue operations and perform an offensive fire attack in a more tenable atmosphere.

NFPA 13D requires only the standard operating water pressure of the domestic plumbing system. Most domestic water supply systems are able to manage the operating pressure demands of a home fire sprinkler system. Communities integrating residential fire sprinklers with water supply systems employ practical solutions that satisfy the needs of all stakeholders.

Opponents of the home fire sprinkler requirement claim that smoke alarms provide enough protection in the home. Fire deaths decreased consistently after the requirement of interconnected, wired smoke alarms in new construction. A plateau was reached in the early 90's and people continue to die in home fires at an unacceptable rate.

Sprinkler systems provide additional benefits, on top of the benefits already provided by smoke alarms. Smoke alarms and sprinkler systems work together to provide protection in the home the same way that seat belts and air bags provide protection in the event of a motor vehicle crash.

Opponents of residential fire sprinkler systems also like to boast that newer homes are safer homes and that the fire and death problem is limited to older homes. Statistically, the only fire safety issue that is relevant to the age of the home is outdated electrical wiring. Beyond that, age of the home has little to nothing to do with fire safety. A fire at two-o'clock in the morning is equally deadly in a newer or older home.

In fact, new methods of construction negatively impact occupant and firefighter life safety under fire conditions. A study by the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) study that tested the performance of unprotected floor assemblies exposed to fire found that these structures are prone to catastrophic collapse as early as six minutes from the onset of fire.

In 2008, Underwriters Laboratories (UL) conducted a similar study to identify the danger to firefighters created by engineered lumber. Its findings also point to the failure of lightweight engineered wood systems used in floors and roofs when exposed to fire.

This content continues onto the next page...