Fatal fire shows need for sprinklers in new homes

NFPA challenges claim by building industry that smoke alarms are enough
Wednesday, May 2, 2012

AUBURN, N.Y.—A fatal fire in a new home here tragically underscores the falsity of a claim by home fire sprinkler opponents that the devices are not needed in new construction, according to Maria Figueroa, regional director of the NFPA’s Fire Prevention Field Office.

“The opponents, mainly the homebuilding industry, say new homes are safe enough with smoke alarms—that we don't need sprinklers, that people are not dying in new homes, they’re dying in old homes,” Figueroa told Security Systems News. “We know this is not statistical truth.”

A tragic example is a March 10 fire in a home built in 2010 that killed a 38-year-old Auburn woman and a 2-year-old girl, despite the home having smoke detectors, according to Figueroa. She blogged about the fire for the NFPA’s Fire Sprinkler Initiative, which advocates the use of home fire sprinklers.

The two victims were found unresponsive about 20 feet away from a small kitchen fire, according to a news report. The fire was ruled accidental, Figueroa said.

“In this particular case, the smoke alarm was sounded. The neighbor came home and she heard the smoke alarm going off and she smelled smoke,” Figueroa told SSN. “It was not too large a fire, it was a kitchen fire that could have been put out with one single sprinkler.”

Figueroa said that a sprinkler “controls the fire immediately, keeps the temperature low and keeps the toxic smoke from forming,” giving home occupants time to escape.

In her blog, Figueroa cites statistics showing that the risk of dying in a fire “decreases by about 80 percent if fire sprinklers are present.”

And in a paper Figueroa wrote, titled “Newer Homes and Fire,” she says studies show new homes are no safer than older ones when it comes to fire.

In fact, new construction can pose certain problems, she said.

A 2008 Underwriters Laboratories study pointed to the failure of lightweight engineered wood systems when exposed to fire, Figueroa wrote in the paper.

“Today’s home furnishings add to the increased risk by providing a greater fuel load. 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,” she wrote.

While the International Residential Code mandates sprinklers in homes built after Jan. 1, 2011, states and communities must first adopt the code. Figueroa said the building industry has been lobbying nationwide, saying sprinklers are unnecessary and make new homes too costly.

For example, on April 3, the Oklahoma City Council voted “to adopt a version of the state building code that doesn't require installation of automatic fire sprinklers in new housing construction,” according to The Oklahoman newspaper.

“Developers, realtors and homebuilders were opposed to requiring fire sprinklers. They contended the added expense was unnecessary,” the paper said.

“The state left it up to individual municipalities on whether to require fire sprinklers,” the article continued. However, it said, “a bill is pending in the state Legislature that would prevent cities from being able to require sprinklers.”

Figueroa said, “Our position is that those model codes represent minimum levels of safety so if you build without sprinklers, you’re building substandard homes.”