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Why Fire Sprinklers?

(Appeared in October 2016 issue of The Dispatcher)

marty-kingI am often asked, “Why install fire sprinklers in buildings?” When I was the assistant chief of the fire prevention bureau, I would answer the question from business owners with, “Fire sprinklers protect property.” I had seen firsthand the effect of fire on a business – the loss of inventory, issues dealing with the insurance settlement, clean up and renovation, loss of customers and loss of employees. While a fire-sprinkler-protected property may still have clean up, renovations and some business downtime, it is often limited to a couple days versus the three to six months in an unprotected property. It was only later that I realized fire sprinklers save lives. It was a fire where three children lost their lives in a home with working smoke alarms. Their inability to escape caused their deaths. In a fire-sprinkler-protected home, the fire would have been controlled or extinguished. Fire sprinklers would have allowed them to escape or notify neighbors, who could have called 9-1-1 earlier, allowing for a rescue rather than a recovery.

National Fire Academy courses stress that there are five E’s of fire prevention: Education, Engineering, Enforcement, Economic Incentive, and Emergency Response. We need to assure that we are employing all E’s to reduce the risk of property loss, injury or loss of life when dealing with fire. Fire sprinklers are part of Engineering. Much like smoke alarms, they employ a solution within the built environment, reducing injuries and loss of life. Smoke alarms have greatly reduced the number of deaths due to fire since 1973, but even though there was a reduction from over 7,000 deaths to around 3,000, we have not been able to reduce the numbers further. We need to employ strategies that will get water on the fire in the fastest possible way.

The response time of a fire sprinkler system will often beat the first phases of the emergency response – identification, notification and dispatch. The fire sprinkler will place water on the fire before the fire department gets the dispatch, reducing the chance of flashover and further protecting responding firefighters. Newer home furnishings and contents, many of which are made of synthetic, petroleum-based products, have drastically increased the speed of fire to flashover. In the past, flashover did not occur for over 20 minutes, but now it happens in only three to five minutes. Survivability time is now less than 90 seconds. Lightweight construction contributes to earlier floor collapses and increases the risks of firefighter injuries and deaths.

Economics have affected fire departments in urban, suburban and rural areas. Staffing has been affected at departments with paid personnel and causes increased response times due to closed stations or reduced company staffing. Paid-on-call and volunteer departments have had trouble recruiting and retaining fire personnel because of the demands placed upon these individuals. This trend will continue and a solution is not around the corner.

“Why fire sprinklers?” Because we no longer do things as we did in the past. Changes have been made to the way things are built, what materials are used, fire department response times, fire department staffing, fire department recruitment and retention. While no one item above is the cause of stagnant fire death statistics, they all combine to contribute to the issue. We, the fire service, need to be advocates for fire sprinkler systems in order to protect people and property within our communities. We need to see that fire sprinklers will not replace the fire service, but rather help preserve its mission to reduce the risk of injury, death or property loss caused by fire.

For more information on how fire sprinklers save lives and property, please email me or visit National Fire Sprinkler Association – Wisconsin Chapter, National Fire Sprinkler Association, and Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition.

-Marty King, State Coordinator, NFSA-WI

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