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Do the Math: Sprinklers = Firefighter Safety

Following the horrific loss of firefighters in South Carolina, we must focus our attention on reducing the likelihood of another such event.

It seems in the fire service change is always associated with an event and is forced upon us. Take a look at the similarity between fire codes and your department's SOPS. If you have been around your fire department long enough, you can put a name or an event on almost every written policy or procedure! Look at how our fire codes have evolved from notable fire events such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, Beverly Hills Supper Club and the night club tragedy in Rhode Island. We never tend to take a proactive approach, but wait until something happens that forces either a fire department or elected officials to react.

Following the horrific loss of nine firefighters in South Carolina during the week of our "Safety Stand Down" we must focus our attention on reducing the likelihood of another event by taking a pro-active approach to firefighter safety.

It is commendable that the leaders in the fire service sponsored the third International Fire and EMS Safety Stand Down. The theme "Ready to Respond", focused on training and preparation before the call. One of the most effective preventative safety measures to take before the call is commonly overlooked by fire departments. The solution to firefighter safety before the call is simple. Just do the math...Sprinklers = Firefighter Safety.

As a fire service we tend to view sprinklers as protection for the building and the occupants. Sprinklers will not put firefighters out of business as we frequently hear! They are designed to control the fire until firefighters arrive. Sprinklers allow firefighters to enter a burning structure while the occupants have time to evacuate. A properly designed and installed sprinkler system will significantly reduce the likelihood that a firefighter will be caught in a flashover or a building collapse.

Shortly after the tragic fire in South Carolina another similar furniture store fire occurred in Ormond Beach, FL with a different outcome. When the Ormond Beach firefighters arrived at the furniture store, a sprinkler had activated and was controlling the fire until final extinguishment could be completed by the fire department. There were no injuries, no firefighter fatalities or extensive media coverage. The business will re-open in a few days.

During the stand down week, did you ask "Is our fire sprinkler requirements adequate for our firefighters and citizens we protect?" Part of preparation before the call entails a risk analysis of existing buildings. Do not overlook sprinkler requirements for existing occupancies. We need to eliminate the "grandfather clause" saying and the practice of continuing to just accept buildings in our response district that present a hazard to firefighters.

Do you have large industrial buildings, hazardous storage facilities or high rise buildings without sprinklers? Understandably a retrofit ordinance can be costly and difficult for the elected officials to overcome the political influence of passing such ordinance. However, as a fire service we are lacking a coordinated effort to ease this burden. One coordinated preventative method overlooked by the fire service is forcing congress to finally pass the proposed Fire Sprinkler Tax Incentive Legislation Initiative. This pending legislation offers tax incentives for the installation of automatic sprinklers. This would ease the financial burden of retrofitting sprinklers and improve fire fighter safety. Have you or your local union sent your congressman a letter of support of passing this legislation as a means to improve firefighter safety?

In fact, how many fire chiefs even use firefighter safety as a primary reason to strengthen fire sprinkler codes? Once the ordinance is approved, is credit given to elected officials who had the courage to "stand up for fire safety"? Illinois is evolving into a very aggressive Midwest fire sprinkler state. There are 65 political entities with a zero square footage sprinkler or zero fire tolerance requirement and 44 entities with a residential sprinkler ordinance. This is a great start! The Northern Illinois Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board frequently recognizes elected officials who have had the courage to stand up to developers and opponents of sprinklers. Recognition ads are placed in municipal trade journals read by their peers. Does your fire department administration recognize elected officials for taking a tough stand for stricter sprinkler codes? Does your firefighters union support and advocate Sprinklers = Firefighter Safety?

The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation recognized the need to do more to prevent line of duty deaths and launched a national initiative. The initiative focus is on prevention through 16 life safety initiatives. One of those initiatives is "Strengthen advocacy for the enforcement of codes and the installation of automatic sprinklers". As we mourn the loss of fellow firefighters in South Carolina, take a strong stand for firefighter safety and reduce the likelihood of this re-occurring by passing stricter fire sprinkler ordinances.

It is simple...Sprinklers = Firefighter Safety!

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