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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 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.

Lightweight floor assemblies and roof trusses are not the only danger to firefighters found in new homes. Passive protection of these assemblies will not solve the problem. The synthetic construction of today's home furnishings also add to the increased risk by providing a greater fuel load.

Larger homes, open spaces, void spaces, and changing building materials contribute to faster fire propagation, shorter time to flashover, rapid changes in fire dynamics, shorter escape time and shorter time to collapse. Fire sprinklers can offset these increased dangers and create a safer fire environment for firefighters to operate in.

The cost of installing home fire sprinklers averages $1.61 per square sprinklered foot (SF) for new construction. To put the cost of a sprinkler system into perspective, many people pay similar amounts for carpet upgrades, granite countertops, paving a stone driveway, or a whirlpool bath. Most recently, the Fire Protection Research Foundation released the Incentives for the Use of Residential Fire Sprinkler Systems in U.S. Communities report revealing that typical incentives offered by communities may offset up to one-third of the cost of home fire sprinkler systems.

In addition to the life safety benefits provided by home fire sprinklers, they reduce the average property loss by 71 percent per home fire. Home fire sprinklers also protect the environment, reducing carbon emissions by up to 98%. Water conservation is another benefit of home fire sprinklers. Sprinklers flowing for ten minutes require up to 90% less water than water used by firefighter extinguishing methods. Water infrastructure demand is reduced at least 47 percent when the homes within a community are protected by fire sprinkler systems.

Home fire sprinkler requirements are not intended to replace the fire service. Adopting these requirements has allowed the fire service to keep up with growth, and to continue to provide an appropriate level of service, which many times translate into savings for a community. Most importantly, it reduces community risk and protects new housing stock for generations to come.

For additional information and to access reports cited here and other resources, please visit the Home Fire Sprinkler Initiative: Bringing Safety Home website: www.firesprinklerinitiative.org.

MARIA FIGUEROA is NFPA's regional director of the fire prevention field office and is based in Miami Lakes, FL. Prior to her retirement in 2008, she accumulated more than 25 years of fire service experience, most recently as a firefighter/paramedic in Doral with the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department. During her tenure with the department, she also served as a fire rescue captain, co-chair of the Miami-Dade Fire Prevention and Safety Appeals Board, and an officer in charge of the code compliance bureau from 1996-1998. Figueroa has also worked as a consultant specializing in services related to disaster management and business continuity.

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