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Fire Prevention Week: Recent Fires in Wisconsin Highlight Importance of State’s Fire Sprinkler Requirements for New Multifamily Dwellings

Over the last month leading up to National Fire Prevention Week (October 6-12), the amount of fires in Wisconsin occurring in older multifamily dwellings that are not protected with fire sprinklers has steadily increased, leaving dozens of occupants displaced and communities rallying to provide occupants with everyday necessities and shelter.

  • September 11 – City of Madison: approximately 34 residents displaced, $125,000 in damages
  • September 16 – La Crosse: 3 residents displaced; $12,000 in damages
  • September 27 – Town of Salem: over 24 residents displaced; total loss to structure (which is assessed at $approximately 350,000) and $100,000-$150,000 in damage to contents
  • October 1 – Janesville: two units displaced (3+ residents); $17,000 in damages

Many older multifamily dwellings, such as the ones where these recent fires have occurred, were not required to install fire sprinklers at the times they were built, which is why so many fires in older apartment buildings can turn catastrophic and often fatal.

Fortunately, there were no fatalities in these recent fires. However, the history of resulting fire damage and occupant displacements alone in multifamily dwelling fires has provided more than enough reason for Wisconsin to require the installation of fire sprinklers in all new construction multifamily dwellings of three units and greater since January 1, 2011.

“In particular, the fire in Salem resulted in total loss of the building that will likely necessitate a full demolition of the building. Plus, most of the occupants did not have renters’ insurance to replace their belongings,” says Dan Gengler, a former fire official who represents the nonprofit Wisconsin Chapter of the National Fire Sprinkler Association (NFSA-WI). “You can fully understand the logic behind the state law when you imagine how much cheaper it is to install fire sprinklers in a multifamily dwelling in comparison to the cost of demolishing a building after a total-loss fire.”

In addition to preventing fire damage to property, fire sprinklers keep fire from spreading to other units in a multifamily dwelling. Each sprinkler is individually activated by heat, so only the sprinkler closest to the fire activates, controlling or even extinguishing a fire in its place of origin and keeping toxic smoke and fumes from spreading as well.

“By stopping a fire in its place, fire sprinklers prevent injuries and death for occupants and firefighters alike. Also, occupants in an entire building won’t have to face long-term displacement from their residences,” adds Gengler.

According to statistics from the National Fire Protection Association, having both smoke alarms and a fire sprinkler system present in a residential building reduces the risk of death in a fire by 82%, relative to having neither. Smoke alarms alert occupants of a fire, while fire sprinklers allow them to safely escape.

“Residential fire sprinklers are an important part of the fire safety equation and messaging that need to be taught during National Fire Prevention Week,” states Gengler.

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