By: Tom Lia, NIFSAB Executive Director
For decades, the fire sprinkler industry has worked closely with the fire service to make buildings safer from fire. That’s our industry’s whole point and it’s a good one. From adopting strong codes that require fire sprinklers in all new construction to implementing inspection, testing and maintenance compliance, we take great pride in what we do and in the ways that our day to day work supports public safety, saving lives and helping improve communities.
So maybe it’s that pride that makes me bristle at efforts to fight fire sprinkler requirements. Anti-sprinkler hostility occurs at every level and in many jurisdictions. We’ve all become familiar with the well-financed negativity that homebuilder and real estate groups use to stop or turn back progressive fire sprinkler codes.
What angers me most and frustrates so many members of the fire service are the misinformation (often outright lies) sprinkler opponents use to convince public officials to vote down fire protection. Perhaps worse is the use of political action funds (PACS) and other ready sources of money to influence elected officials when the time comes for a code vote. Costs are often touted but rarely are the documents presented for fact checking. The most common misinformation trumpeted by homebuilder and real estate groups are high installation cost and that deadly fires are only a problem in older homes. Let me emphasize “groups” as I have great respect for the individual homebuilder company and real estate agent.
In many jurisdictions, one requirement that uniquely affects the sprinkler industry is requirements based on the size of a building. Often, the decision to install sprinklers or not rests on square footage or number of stories. Occupancy type also plays a role, but you get my point. The ICC International Building Codes have an occupancy type checklist from 5,000 to 12,000 and 20,000 square feet, including heights, area limitations and other qualifications. Because of those numbers, owners often order architects to design and build buildings at 4,999 square feet, 11,999 square feet, 19,999 square feet. Whatever it takes to avoid installing fire sprinklers.
Why is that not opposed? Why do we have these thresholds anyway? I have worked with and talked to many code officials and consultants about this and no one can tell me where the square foot requirements came from or what rationale was used.
The challenge is out there; please let me know how these numbers were set up and what data was used to justify. Self-produced documents and reports with a great twist of facts are often sent as letters and emails to Village Boards and legislators.
Yet that is the reality for the fire sprinkler industry. Why should any building be built today without the proven protection of fire sprinklers? Can you think of another trade or industry that depends on the size of a building for its stock and trade?
These thresholds do more than confuse; they open the door to influence and in some cases corruption. From personal experience as a new-construction inspector, and fire marshal, I have seen this myself. I’ve known dedicated Fire and Building Officials who were told to stand down and not push the issue. Some have lost their jobs for trying to do the right thing. I am one of these people who was pushed out of an appointed fire marshal position by politicians who reacted to business pressure after the Orland vs. Intrastate Piping case
According to the NFPA, today’s fires are more deadly than previously. Because of the contents in buildings made of synthetic materials, fires burn fast, produce deadly toxic smoke and can become deadly in as little as two minutes. Firefighters are also exposed to contamination, and as a result there is an increase in firefighter health issues, including cancer.
Anti-sprinkler information that leads to weaker codes is frustrating to members of the fire service. It is frustrating to those of us who know first-hand that fire sprinklers are the only technology that can independently prevent death from fire.
Why do we fight? Because when national codes include fire sprinklers, but builder and real estate groups convince local or state elected officials to take them out of the codes, the result is substandard homes. And when substandard homes and commercial buildings are built they will put occupants and responders at risk.
Our industry helps our communities. Every time fire sprinklers are installed, that building is made safer because it will prevent injury and death, save jobs, preserve property and sales tax, lower insurance costs, help the ISO rating for communities and help protect the environment through water savings and reduced pollution. That building makes the community better for all.
We should not be defensive when fire sprinklers are required in buildings. Instead, the opposition needs to be challenged. Stand tall and join me in working to make codes better, requirements more standardized and buildings safer.
One way to do this is to report all fire sprinkler successful activations to the media. Share them with NIFSAB. We’ll help spread the word. Your community and elected officials need to know every time life and property were saved and tragedy was averted, because the building was protected with fire sprinklers. Click here to complete the Successful Activation Form.
Participate in the “It Takes Two” program by keeping a fire sprinkler and smoke alarm in your command care. Remind the community after a fire that it takes both to prevent fire deaths, injuries and property loss. Both will be presented during the Home Fire Sprinkler Day event May 23, 2019
Finally, sign up for the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition Built for Life Fire Department program,the NFPA Fire Sprinkler Initiative newsletter and join the Illinois Fire Sprinkler Coalition.