Expert Commentary

Fire sprinklers: not just for the lawn

Published on 16 June 2009
Not just for the lawn: sprinklers should be brought inside the home to maximise domestic fire protection
Not just for the lawn: sprinklers should be brought inside the home to maximize domestic fire protection

A new NFPA advocacy campaign is pushing for home fire sprinklers. In this article Lorraine Carli, Vice-President of Communications at the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), gives her personal take on the issue.

Nearly 10 years ago, my husband and I built our home in a typical New England development. It was a demanding process filled with lots of decisions. We picked sizes and colors for countless products. We learned that faucets don't come with handles and toilets don't come with seats - those are separate choices. Most of the choices we made added to the cost, a few hundred dollars here, a few thousand there.

We also chose sprinklers - for our lawn. (This despite the fact that I think suburban lawns are overrated and not worth the cost and effort of trying to keep them green all summer.) We were fortunate to have a good contractor to guide us through the process and tell us which decisions were more important than others.

But he never told us about home fire sprinklers, and we never asked. After all, that was about seven years before I came to work at NFPA. Since then, my perspective has changed. Like many of my colleagues in the fire safety business, I've become hypersensitive about fire protection. I go to the movie theater and look for the exits, and I look for the sprinklers when I check into a hotel.

The argument for domestic fire sprinklers

One of my first assignments at NFPA was to coordinate the Coalition for Fire-Safe Cigarettes with Gary Keith, NFPA's vice-president for Field Operations and Education. In just three years, life-saving legislation requiring cigarettes to meet a fire safety standard has been enacted in almost 40 states.

"You are 82 percent less likely to die in a house fire if sprinklers and working smoke alarms are both present"

The campaign has been successful for a number of reasons: it advocates the use of a proven, effective technology; it is championed by, among others, the fire service, which lends the argument a strong, credible voice; and it is singularly focused on one goal - saving lives. Since smoking materials are the leading cause of home fire fatalities, fire-safe cigarettes will undoubtedly have a meaningful impact on the fire death problem in this country.

Home fire sprinklers can have the same impact. We have long relied on the effectiveness of sprinklers in other types of buildings, including high rises, schools, and hospitals. NFPA has no record of a fire killing more than two people in a completely ‘sprinklered' public assembly, educational, institutional, or residential building where the system was working properly.

You are 82 percent less likely to die in a house fire if sprinklers and working smoke alarms are both present. Fire service members across the country support home fire sprinklers in model codes and local ordinances. In fact, there are now more than 400 U.S. communities with some kind of home fire sprinkler requirement, and all the model codes include a sprinkler provision.

Bringing fire sprinklers home

Fire sprinklers are already used in many offices, hospitals and schools
Fire sprinklers are already used in many public buildings including offices, hospitals and schools 

NFPA recently launched the "Fire Sprinkler Initiative-Bringing Safety Home," a nationwide effort to encourage the use of home fire sprinklers and the adoption of fire sprinkler requirements for new construction. Key components of the campaign are the important educational resources developed by the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition over the past 11 years. The new initiative is very exciting, as we look to further reduce the fire risk to lives and property.

It won't be easy. We will battle common myths surrounding sprinklers, including notions that they cost too much or that a fire will cause them all to go off at the same time and soak an entire house. While neither is true, such myths are perpetuated by both the uninformed and those who hope to scare people away from an idea that makes sense. But myths can be corrected with accurate information. Fire deaths in the United States have been substantially reduced in recent decades, but there is still more to do. Fires continue to kill almost 3,000 people every year. Home fire sprinklers should be as common as smoke alarms in homes, and they should not be a choice, as they were for my husband and me. If I were building my home today, the lawn wouldn't be the only place with sprinklers.

Lorraine Carli - Vice-President of Communications, National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)

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