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Lifesaving fire sprinklers left out of building codes

Shannon McNaught * Delaware
shannon.marvel@doverpost.com
Dover Post
Dover Post

Fires in residential structures with sprinkler systems do so little damage, the Delaware State Fire Marshal’s Office doesn’t keep statistics on them.

“Because if a sprinkler system goes off, a large, multi-alarm fire becomes a trash can fire and we’re usually not called on that,” said Delaware Assistant Fire Marshal Michael Chionchio. “Most times, with large, multi-alarm fires, there is a lack of sprinklers.”

A study by the National Fire Protection Association found some type of sprinkler system was present in only about 10% of reported U.S. structure fires between 2010 and 2014. The same study found that fire deaths were 87% lower and property damage costs 30% less if there was a sprinkler system.

“Home fire sprinklers are like having the fire department sitting in your living room, waiting for a fire to occur,” said Chionchio. “You just can’t beat that, if you ask me. The number one thing to save your life, and firefighters’, I would say, is fire sprinklers.”

Despite the fact that international standards call for fire sprinklers in all newly-built homes, Delaware has not adopted the safety measure.

The International Residential Code is used by 49 states and made home fire sprinklers a standard in 2009. However, all but California, Maryland and the District of Columbia have removed the requirement. The one place here where fire sprinklers are required in new homes is in Newark.

The farthest Delaware legislation has gone is requiring builders to give homebuyers cost estimates for sprinklers, and requiring the fire marshal’s office to send homebuyers information on sprinkler benefits. Gov. Jack Markell signed that into law in 2015.

Despite this hesitation to mandate sprinklers, some places are finding other ways to encourage them. Seaford recently began offering discounts on building permits for properties including sprinkler systems.

The advocates

The Delaware Fire Sprinkler Coalition promotes including residential fire sprinkler systems in new-construction single-family homes. The coalition has about 30 active members and is chaired by Paul Eichler, a volunteer for the Dover Fire Department and a fire battalion chief for the Anne Arundel County Fire Department in Maryland.

“From the perspective of the fire service, one of our biggest goals with the outbreak of a fire is getting water on it,” Eichler said. “A residential sprinkler system is designed to activate … very early on in the growth stages of a fire.”

According to the nonprofit Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition, temperatures of between 135 °and 165 degrees cause the sprinkler to turn on. This early suppression means far less property damage, human injuries and fatalities.

“At those temperatures, a sprinkler head will activate in under a minute when a fire breaks out. Compare that to the arrival of a fire company, that can be, at best, several minutes,” Eichler said.

Sher Grogg can confirm that. The 62-year-old recently moved to Selbyville from New York, which is where she was Jan. 19, 2015. That day, around 3:30 a.m., a fire started in her brother’s 16,000 square-foot Annapolis, Maryland home. Her brother, sister-in-law and their four grandchildren all died in the fire.

“They were still hosing it down at three in afternoon when I got there. It burned down to nothing,” Grogg said. “It smoldered for two days afterward. They couldn’t even enter to find the bodies. It took them a week to find them all. It was a horrendous experience.”

The fire was caused by a corroded electrical outlet that sparked the skirt of a Christmas tree. Because her brother’s home was built just before Maryland’s residential fire sprinkler requirement was enacted, it was not equipped.

Since that devastating day, Grogg has been a big advocate for home fire sprinkler systems. She speaks publicly on behalf of Common Voices. The nonprofit is made up of people directly affected by fires. They work to educate others on the benefits of fire sprinklers.

“I honestly had no idea fires are as fast as they are now,” Grogg said. “In the 50s and 60s you had 17 minutes to get out. Now you have under three minutes to get out safely, without it going into flashover.”

People inside homes when flashover occurs seldom survive. According to the National Fire Protection Agency, a flashover occurs in an enclosed area when all surfaces reach ignition temperature, causing fire to spread through the entire area simultaneously.

Widely-cited research done by Underwriters Laboratories in 2014 showed that newer homes burn up to eight times faster than older homes, largely due to the increase in the use of synthetic materials.

Installation obstacles

Cost causes most people to opt out of fire sprinklers in a new home.

However, the National Fire Prevention Association found that homes equipped with them average 7% savings on homeowners’ insurance.

A 2013 study by the association found that the national average to install a home fire sprinkler system was $1.35 per square foot.

“When you finance that out over 30 years on today’s interest rate, it boils down to pennies per day in order to protect your family,” Eichler said.

But the builders of Grogg’s new Selbyville home charged her about $10,000 for a sprinkler system.

“My home is about 3,600 square feet. I was quoted in the area of $4,000 by another fire sprinkler company, so they’re marking it up,” she said. “But I’d rather have than sprinkler than, say, a granite counter top.”

Grogg was disappointed by her builder’s failure to present fire sprinklers as an important option.

“I went through the whole sales pitch, chose the carpet, the counter tops,” she said. “I was at the end of the menu and ready to sign dotted line when I said, ‘Wait a minute, I want fire sprinklers in my home.’ And they said usually people just sign this waiver, nobody wants them, you don’t have to have them. I said ‘No no no, I do want this. You need to present this in a totally different light.’”

There are more than 170 homes in Grogg’s development and they start at prices around $400,000. According to Grogg, hers is the only sprinkler-equipped dwelling.