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Flashpoint: Sprinkler misinformation hurting cause for safety

You know what bugs me? Urban myths. I hate it when inaccurate, misleading or downright wrong information is perpetuated by the media, the entertainment industry or just spread through the grapevine. Sometimes it is just a pet peeve or an annoyance but it can be a big deal when the public gets bad information about an issue that is needlessly costing the lives of dozens of Canadians each year.

February 28, 2008
By Peter Sells

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You know what bugs me? Urban myths. I hate it when inaccurate, misleading or downright wrong information is perpetuated by the media, the entertainment industry or just spread through the grapevine. Sometimes it is just a pet peeve or an annoyance but it can be a big deal when the public gets bad information about an issue that is needlessly costing the lives of dozens of Canadians each year.

Most people have never seen a sprinkler system in action. Most people have the impression that these devices go off at a whim, are unreliable and cause huge dollar losses through water damage. Therein lies the myth.

Let’s give homeowners/buyers some credit. They’re not stupid and they want to protect their investments and their families. We are halfway there with the smoke-alarm message. The need is recognized and the legislation is in place but compliance is still spotty. We, the fire service, have lost our shyness about publicly stating that specific lives could have been saved with a working smoke alarm. Charges are laid that were not laid in the past. The difference between smoke alarms and sprinklers is that nobody ever muddied the waters with misinformation about smoke alarms. For the most part, people understand what a smoke alarm is and how it can save lives. On the other hand, what are people hearing about residential sprinklers? 

Typical scene: the hero is trapped behind the door of the warehouse and the bad guys are closing in. Thinking fast, the hero lights a cigarette, blows a puff of smoke at a detector and – ba-woosh! – every sprinkler head in the building simultaneously spews out a tsunami that electrocutes the bad guys. If I’m exaggerating here it’s not by much. I have yet to see an accurate portrayal in a TV drama of how a sprinkler system, or any fire-protection system operates. People have only the information that is presen­ted to them and if this is all you knew, would you rush out and install a sprinkler system in your home?

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Mike Holmes, the host of Holmes on Homes on HGTV, said in March 2007 column in the Globe and Mail that “Making residential sprinklers mandatory in all new construction is a Band-Aid solution.” Holmes also states, “When it comes to fire safety in your house, the right options, hands down, are smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors and fire extinguishers.” Well, what advocate of residential sprinklers has ever advised against smoke alarms, CO alarms or fire extinguishers? Sorry, Mike, but you have bought into the argument that many home builders associations have been putting forward, instead of listening to the fire service and the insurance industry. Sprinklers are not very expensive, are extremely reliable and have enormous potential to save lives. If sprinklers caused more damage from water than they prevented from fire, then why would the insurance industry advocate their use? When was the last time the insurance industry backed the wrong horse?

Several progressive communities have enacted bylaws requiring sprinklers in all new residential construction. Of course, developers will pass the $3,000 to $5,000 cost of the sprinkler system on to the buyer. Sprinkler proponents say developers could successfully market the additional cost of sprinklers as a safety feature that costs only about as much as upgraded carpet or an interlocking brick driveway. Let’s face reality: average homeowners would put either of those options way above sprinklers on their priority list. They would be more likely to install a sprinkler system for their lawn than for their home. It will take many more years of consistent messaging on our part to get the public to a level of acceptance of sprinklers that compares to that of smoke alarms and many lives could be needlessly lost over those years.

So if the costs are passed along to the home buyer, what is the advantage to the municipality? Is it pure altruism and concern for public safety? Maybe to a certain extent, but this bears some examination. A 1999 study by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation said municipalities could save money if fire service response times in sprinklered developments could be lengthened. This could occur if there were significant opportunities for new development beyond the areas presently served by existing fire stations, and “the fire department’s role is fire suppression, and only secondary support is provided for non-fire emergency services when requested.” It worries me that some fire chiefs are repeating this argument and are willing to turn back the clock and allow longer response times. Sprinklers may buy us time in a fire situation but what about grandpa’s heart attack or the kid trapped in the collapsed snowbank? Don’t they deserve the fastest possible response? Will home-  owners in those new developments get a tax break from the municipality to compensate them for the reduced level of service?

So let’s take the pressure off of the municipality and put residential sprinkler regulation where it should be: in the fire code at the provincial level. This will create an even playing field for attracting new development. At the same time, let’s keep our eye on our primary mission of saving lives, not just reducing insurance losses and infrastructure costs.

District Chief Peter Sells writes, speaks and consults on fire service management and professional development across North America and internationally. He holds a B.Sc. from the University of Toronto and an MBA from the University of Windsor. He sits on the advisory councils of the Ontario Fire College and the Institution of Fire Engineers Canada Branch.


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