Noisy Opposition Won't Win

The ultimate protection from home fire injury and death is a total system of safety: smoke alarms, fire sprinklers and well rehearsed fire drills.This year marked my 25th anniversary working in the field of safety education and outreach. One of the most...


The ultimate protection from home fire injury and death is a total system of safety: smoke alarms, fire sprinklers and well rehearsed fire drills.

This year marked my 25th anniversary working in the field of safety education and outreach. One of the most formative periods of my career was at Factory Mutual (now FM Global). This was when the residential fire sprinkler movement was really getting underway, and it was a heady time in public safety technology.

Back then, household smoke detection equipment was catching on and safety educators were just starting to help consumers understand how home fire sprinkler systems could also dramatically protect their loved ones at home. Since that time, the fire death rate has been cut enormously - primarily from the widespread use of smoke alarms. Yet, even with 95 percent of homes having smoke alarms, we still lose more than 3,000 people to home fires every year.

The ultimate protection from home fire injury and death is a total system of safety: smoke alarms, fire sprinklers and well rehearsed fire drills. With wider use, home fire sprinkler systems could have an even greater potential to reduce home fire deaths and injuries than smoke alarms did in the 1970s.

It's a shame that such a powerful system of protection is present in less than two percent of newly constructed single-family homes. National data* show that 63% of homeowners recognize sprinklers' safety potential and 69% believe sprinklers increase a home's value. Clearly, consumers have a strong interest in protecting their homes with fire sprinkler systems. So what's the problem?

The problem is two-fold. There is a lack of awareness about the technology generally, that is made worse by the widespread belief in common myths about sprinklers (they all go off at once; they are not needed with smoke alarms; leaks are common; etc; -- all false). And sadly, there are groups that spend a lot of money to oppose local ordinances requiring the installation of fire sprinklers in new construction of single-family homes.

Fortunately, the opposition may be noisy but it is not winning the battle. Safety advocates have helped bring about regulatory change to improve home fire safety and today there are more than 200 local ordinances requiring fire sprinkler systems in new single-family home construction. Older nursing homes may finally get sprinkler protection as well, now that the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has taken action in an effort to update 2,500 existing nursing homes. What's more, last year national building and fire codes formalized single-family home sprinkler requirements for the first time ever; a move widely anticipated to accelerate acceptance of local regulations as municipalities begin to update their codes in coming months.

Less visible but equally important in this campaign is the strategic increase in education about sprinklers, not just among the general public but also among fire safety educators and influential groups, such as home builders. HFSC has been in the forefront of community sprinkler education for a decade, developing innovative teaching strategies and materials and serving as a valued resource to the fire safety community. The Home Safety Council is among the diverse organizations that marshal their resources through HFSC's Steering Committee, working to put the necessary teaching tools in the hands of community fire safety leaders, consumers and varied professions involved in home building, marketing and insurance.

This is important progress. But we're not there yet. Daily, home fire tragedies remind us that individuals, communities and organizations must do more to help protect both residents and first responders from the dangers of home fires.

The Home Safety Council has stepped up its efforts to ensure that home fire sprinkler technology makes its way into more communities. We are working with our partners to ensure that American families have a chance to learn that the same fire protection technology they trust at work, at school and in so many other properties is also available to protect them at home.

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