Again and again this year, headlines have shouted heartbreaking news about loss of life and property: “5 children dead in north Minneapolis house fire,” “Man dies after St. Paul house fire,” “Couple found dead in smoky house fire.”
With 20 house-fire deaths in the first 15 weeks of 2014, Minnesota is on pace toward what could be the worst year on record for fire deaths.
Over the past decade, 305 people have died in house fires in Minnesota.
So far this year, every deadly fire has come with word that the homes involved had working smoke alarms — either interconnected or stand-alone. Yet people continue to die.
But that can change.
Minnesota’s five leading fire organizations are standing together in an effort to keep residential fire sprinklers a part of the state’s building code.
The issue is generating discussion in the Legislature this session, with builders claiming that sprinklers are too expensive, that today’s homes are completely safe and that smoke alarms are sufficient to notify people in time to exit safely. As firefighters, we know that’s simply not true. Many of these fires are killing and injuring people long before the fire department gets the call. A sprinkler system can buy time until the fire department gets there.
Still, the cost-vs.-benefit debate is an important one to have. Sprinkler supporters don’t take regulation or mandates lightly. We value freedom and respect free markets. In this instance, though, the public safety benefit is clear and compelling, and the building industry is going to find itself on the wrong side of history.
As St. Paul Fire Chief Tim Butler has been quoted saying: “I have yet to see a builder at a fire scene making claims about how safe their building is while we’re digging through the ashes.”
Sprinklers are a worthwhile step forward that will save lives, both now and in the future — because today’s new homes are tomorrow’s old homes. Yet the builders’ staunch opposition to sprinkler requirements demonstrates that these lifesaving measures — like other building codes, seat belts and smoke alarms before them — will not be widely deployed without a mandate.
In response to the quickly growing number of fire deaths across Minnesota, numerous fire chiefs gathered last month to put out a call for increased fire prevention across the state. Through a controlled burn, we dramatically demonstrated how quickly flames can spread, particularly in homes using modern-engineered lightweight construction, and how quickly sprinklers extinguish the fire. Builders can claim that the costs of sprinklers outweigh the benefits, but that argument quickly loses momentum when you see, hear and smell flames engulfing a home.
Here are the facts:
Smoke alarms are not enough. Fire sprinklers are critical to keeping Minnesotans safe — especially the youngest and oldest of us, who have a more difficult time getting out in an emergency situation. While working smoke alarms cut the risk of dying in a reported home fire by about 50 percent, the risk of dying decreases by about 80 percent when sprinklers are present.
Fire sprinklers are cost-effective. A national perspective on the cost of installing residential fire sprinklers is examined in a report released by the Fire Protection Research Foundation. According to the report, the cost of installing sprinkler systems averages $1.35 per sprinklered square foot. For a 4,500-square-foot home, the cost is similar to a burglar alarm, central vacuum or other home technology system.
Modern construction and furniture burns quickly. People tend to assume that modern building techniques are safer, but in fact the opposite is true. New construction methods and materials have significantly increased the danger for homeowners. Older homes using conventional construction tend to have stronger structural elements and more interior walls, making them safer from fire than homes using modern-engineered lightweight construction. Families in older homes have an average of 17 minutes to escape a house fire — 14 minutes more than those in newer homes.
All of Minnesota’s fire organizations support safer construction of new homes over 4,500 square feet by making fire sprinklers a minimum requirement. For more information, visit www.FireSprinklersMN.com.
Bill Mund is president of the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association.