Across the United States, sprinkler opponents are pushing state legislation that would restrict a community’s ability to make its own decision about model safety codes for new construction. The legislation would prevent communities from implementing any new sprinkler mandates in one- and two-family homes. If it becomes law, such legislation will put lives at risk.
Since their defeat in Baltimore last October, the opposition has been "walking the halls" and using their usual "red herring" arguments to try and convince state legislators to sponsor bills prohibiting the inclusion of one- and two-family sprinkler provisions in the building code. In some cases, they are presenting NFPA data used completely out of context. We'd like to explain the facts about some of the common arguments against sprinklers that we're hearing:
The opposition's argument: Home fire incidents, injuries and death continue to decline without the installation of fire sprinklers.
THE FACTS: While it is true that fire deaths have declined, we have not solved the home fire death problem. In 2008, there were 403,000 residential fires, killing 2,780 civilians, as well as a number of firefighters. These fires also resulted in 13,560 injuries and caused $8.5 billion in damages. Fire in the home poses one of the biggest threats to the people of your community. Last year, 84% of people who died in fires, did so in one- and two-family homes; an increase from the previous year. Firefighter deaths in these structures also increased. Those at greatest risk in home fires? Older adults and children under five years old.
The opposition's argument: Smoke alarms are enough.
THE FACTS: Smoke alarms have done a good job. And it is ironic that many of those who oppose home fire sprinklers today are the same people who opposed hardwired smoke alarm requirement back in the day. They are now praising this home safety feature as the "end all" for eliminating the fire death problem. We've done a good job in reducing the number and severity of home fires through public education, improved codes and standards, and the wide-use of smoke alarms. But in order to take the next step toward saving lives and property, we need to get serious about home fire sprinklers.
The opposition's argument: Chances of survival in a home fire is 99.45% if you have working smoke alarms.
THE FACTS: Sprinkler opponents have been using this statistic, but the number is taken completely out of context. Consider this: the toll of roughly 3,000 U.S. home fire deaths each year occurs in roughly 400,000 reported home fires. Therefore, the likelihood of surviving a home fire is more than 99% without regard to the presence of smoke alarms or any other fire safety provisions. Does that mean 3,000 deaths are acceptable? Most people would say no.
And each year, there are an estimated 42,000 deaths due to motor vehicle crashes and an estimated 6 million reported motor vehicle crashes. The likelihood of surviving a motor vehicle crash is 99.4 percent. Does that mean 42,000 deaths are acceptable? Most people would say no.
The opposition's argument: Sprinkler systems are only effective 40% of the time.
THE FACTS: It is important to recognize that home fire sprinkler systems are designed to activate when the heat of a fire rises to 135°-160°F. They are not activated by smoke. Some opponents have cited some low percentages for what they call "fire sprinkler efficiency", but these statistics improperly include as "failures" fires that do not produce enough heat to activate the sprinkler system - possibly because they were extinguished before heat rose to the point of activating the sprinkler system. In home fires deemed large enough to activate an operational sprinkler, wet-pipe sprinklers operated and were effective in 98% of reported fires. Source: NFPA's "U.S. Experience with Sprinklers and Other Automatic Fire Exinguishing Equipment" report by Dr. John Hall (page 13).
The opposition's argument: Consumers feel safe without sprinklers and the demand is not there.
THE FACTS: People have a tendency to believe "it won't happen to me" -- until it does. The fact is that where people feel the safest, at home, is where the majority of the fire deaths occur. It is the responsibility of the life safety community, policy-makers, and homebuilders to provide homes that are safe. According to the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition's national poll conducted by Harris Interactive®:
- nearly two-thirds (69 percent) of U.S. homeowners say having a fire sprinkler system increases a home’s value.
- 38% of homeowners say they would be more likely to purchase a new home with sprinklers than without them.
- 45% say a sprinklered home is more desirable than an unsprinklered home, most often because of added safety provided by sprinklers (51%).
The opposition's argument: New homes are safer.
THE FACTS: Opponents of residential fire sprinkler systems like to boast that newer homes are safer homes and that our nation's fire and death problem is limited to older homes. This claim evaporates if you adjust for the higher risk characteristics (e.g., lower income, less education) found on average in the occupants of older homes.
Recent research reveals that newer homes are more likely to include a threat to firefighters in the form of lightweight construction, estimated to be used in one-half to two-thirds of all new wood one- and two-family homes. Larger homes, open spaces, increased fuel loads, 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 the increased dangers posed by lightweight construction and create a safer fire environment for firefighters.
The opposition's argument: Fire sprinklers are costly and have not been proven to be a cost effective solution.
THE FACTS: The Fire Protection Research Foundations’ Home Fire Sprinkler Cost Assessment report revealed that the cost of installing home fire sprinklers averages $1.61 per square sprinklered foot (SF) for new construction. The data included in the report reflects the sprinkler system bid price plus all associated costs for the system which were not included in the bid, such as permit fees and increases in water service line tap fees. When credits/incentives (such as wider spacing of fire hydrants, narrower road widths, reduced water main sizes, number of neighborhood exits, and water meter development charge credit), are applied, the average cost is reduced to $1.49 SF.
To put the cost of a sprinkler system into perspective, many people pay similar amounts for carpet upgrades, paving a stone driveway, or a whirlpool bath.
The opposition's argument: Annual sprinkler maintenance and inspections costs are high.
THE FACTS: NFPA 13D, Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems in One- and Two-Family Dwellings and Manufactured Homes, prescribes simple maintenance and inspections that can be performed by homeowners. These systems require less “maintenance” than you need in order to keep your clothes dryer safe.
The opposition's argument: Insurance will go up, sprinkler water damage will not be covered.
THE FACTS: Sprinklers do more than save lives; they also protect property from fire. In many situations, that means a family that survives a fire will have a home and resources to continue living their lives. There is no other fire safety technology or program that produces as great a reduction in risk of home fire death and property loss per fire than sprinklers. Consider this: sprinklers reduce the average property loss by 71% per home fire.
ISO, an independent statistical, rating, and advisory organization that serves the property/casualty insurance industry, recently published an advisory on how residential sprinklers are reflected in its residential property programs. The standard ISO Dwelling Fire and Homeowners Programs contain available premium credits for installation of fire sprinkler protection up to a maximum of:
- 13% for full sprinkler protection that includes all areas of a home, including attics, bathrooms, closets, and attached structures
- 8% for fire sprinkler protection of all areas of a home excluding the attic, bathrooms, closets, and attached structures as long as fire detection equipment is installed in those areas where sprinklers are omitted
Individual insurer programs may provide different credits. The Research Foundation's cost assessment report found insurance discounts ranging from 5% to 12%, with an average of 7%.
It's never too late for home fire sprinkler advocates to start "walking the halls". Arm yourself with information from proven scientific research to debunk the opponents’ arguments and provide policy-makers with the facts. At the end of the day, walk away knowing that you are on the side of life safety. And keep up the good fight out there!