Installing residential sprinklers In the United States

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Installing Residential Sprinklers

Imagine for one moment, waking up from a dead sleep in the middle of the night to the ear-piercing sound from a smoke detector blaring in the distant. Looking at the bedroom door you see a reddish glow dancing from underneath the door. Something catches your ear; a scream is heard above the crackles and pops nearby. Still drowsy, it takes a second to realize what is happening and who is screaming for help. It's a fire and it's your child who is crying for help.  The bedroom door is opened and heavy smoke begins to race overhead as you are forced to crawl on your knees to the child's room. Coughing and gagging, the child is reached and taken into your arms. Struggling to make it out of the house, the front door is reached; you and your child are safe. Looking over your shoulder as you run to the neighbors for help you see your bedroom window full of red and orange flames. By the time the Fire Department arrives the house is fully engulfed your home is destroyed. Now this is a fictional narrative that ended with lives being spared, however, this story that can become real for so many people with much more destructive results.

In the United States alone almost 80% of all fire deaths happen in the home, more than all the natural disasters combined. In 2009 the CDC estimated on average someone died in a fire every 175 minutes while every 31 minutes there where injuries from fires in the home. There were 412,500 residential fires of those 2,620 people died. An astonishing seven billion in residential property damage was caused that year (Karter, 2010). Studies done by the U.S. Fire Administration directly show that installing residential fire sprinkler systems could have saved thousands of these lives and prevented a majority of those injuries and reduced hundreds of millions of dollars in property losses.

The installation of residential fire sprinklers is the most effective way to prevent fire within the home (Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition, 2010).  A code that is currently being pushed into law within all 50 states by the National Fire Protection Agency is NFPA 13D. It directly pertains to requiring all new single family homes requiring the installation of fire sprinkler systems in the home.

It is asked that all city councilmembers and state house representatives educating themselves with this life saving fire code and bring attention to this important public safety technology that can save lives and homes. It is the hopes that our elected public figures will support this effort to protect homes in our community with automatic fire sprinklers. The intention of this report is to inform lawmakers that more can and needs be done to save the lives of citizens in their communities and NFPA 13D gives a clear path on how to accomplish it.

NFPA 13D building code will protect families and their homes. As a firefighter, the reality is that smoke alarms just are not enough anymore. There are more and more occurrences of firefighters responding to a structure fires where the smoke alarms have not been installed but the batteries have been removed or dead. Smoke alarms and detectors are vital pieces of equipment in any household but they're intended to detect, not control a fire.  Residential fire sprinklers supplement the alarms, offering fire protection from the flames immediately. Sprinklers systems can contain and even extinguish a fire in less time than it would take for most fire departments to arrive on scene, thus offering less damage, and the chance of toxic smoke and gases reaching your family.

Homes today are being built with cheaper materials as well as being built by the lowest bidder.  Thirty years ago, homes, furnishings and appliances were constructed of solid wood and steel, today they are constructed with glue, plastics and synthetic materials (Doctorow, 2011). A prime example are floor joists, they used to be 2x8s and 2x10s, today they are made up of composite materials which are wood particles, mixed in with glue products. It is a cheaper material and readily available. The construction is lightweight, meaning 2x2 and 2x4 wood trusses are being used with flimsy gusset plates holding it all together. The thickness of the wood allows fire to burn faster and hotter spreading flames throughout the house rapidly in turn threatening the integrity of the structural frame. When gusset plates are heated to high temperatures they expand and warp and will ultimately allow the structure to fail and come down on the occupants and firefighters. This has become a major threat to firefighter safety. Another problem is more and more of the furnishing we place into our homes is made from synthetic materials. From the carpets to the finish placed on wood floors. Synthetic materials burn hot, releasing extremely toxic fumes into the air. There are deadly chemicals in just about everything we place into our homes. What most people do not understand is that when these materials burn they release not just ordinary smoke but flammable toxic gasses, these gasses can ignite causing a flashover. When a flashover occurs in the home temperatures can rise to 1,300 to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit (WISN, 2009). Synthetic materials will shorten escape times dramatically. Almost 90% of all fires that firefighters respond to happen in the home (Kurasz, 2010). 

As discussed earlier, fire sprinklers saves lives and provide immense protection from fire. Sprinklers are automatic and act immediately when the temperature rises to meet the sprinklers specifications. Normally residential sprinklers systems will run off the homes water main and the piping is located behind the walls and above the ceiling in the living spaces in the home. This conceals the piping for finished areas without degrading the look of the home. The water is released and extinguishes the fire before the structure and many of its valuables are damages. Sprinklers systems will use less water than fire departments would and create much less water damage as well. Each sprinkler can protect up to a 12x12 foot area (Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition, 2010). Sprinkler systems are not a new idea; they have been used for more than a century. Only recently have sprinklers been adapted to install for use in the modern home.

Sprinkler systems have been perceived as a liability. Opponents argue that home owners with property of value would become a liability in the sale of their homes (Kass, 2005). The concept of adding a sprinklers system is relatively inexpensive for a life saving device that works. The estimated cost of adding a system is at approximately $1.61 per square foot installed in new construction or while the structure is being erected (FEMA, 2011). The cost of retro-fitting a home is more due to the teardown and reinstallation of the wall for plumbing. At any cost, having loved ones protected is worth it.

One major opponent that does not want to see this law passed in legislation is the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB).  It is the belief that NFPA 13D will put home ownership out of reach of much of the general public. It is said that as the price of an item swells the demand drops. It is stated by the NAHB that homebuilders share in the goal of preventing fire related deaths, but feel keeping safer, new homes affordable is the best way to attain this, not the installation of new technology (Home Builders Association of South Carolina, 2007). The NAHB would rather educate and mandate that all homes have operational smoke detectors and that this would offer the most cost efficient defense from fire deaths. This tactic is what is currently being done and from a firefighters standpoint it is not working. The claim made by the Master Builders Association that installing smoke detectors is the most practical way to decrease fatalities (Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties, 2010) this will remain is true, but only because code 13D has not been passed in all 50 states and many new homes have yet been built with this technology. Given the chance, the public will see that this life saving device works. The NAHB argues that homes are built safer than ever before and that sprinklers are not a necessity. They argue that homes are being built with fire safety materials and fire separation walls that inhibit the spread of fire from room to room and that numerous fire codes are in place for example, the requirement of openings in bedrooms to be larger which will allow firefighter and occupants to escape.             

Don't let a family that wakes up in the middle of the night with the fire already knocking on the bedroom door. Just one sprinkler head near the fire will control and possibly extinguish the fire until firefighters arrive on scene. It may take the fire department several minutes to respond. Without fire sprinklers, who knows the damage the home may suffer or if everyone will get out okay. These are not the questions to ponder. Mandating NFPA 13D and introducing a fire sprinkler suppression system into residential homes will save lives and property for generations to come. Don't let your citizens become unnecessary statistics, vote yes to this bill! Adding this technology to your home will save many lives. It is essential for your citizens to have peace of mind where it belongs, at home.