Leading Edge: The subliminal case for residential fire sprinklers
By Don Jolley
Everyone in the fire service is well acquainted with the ever-present argument around response times. The overwhelming opinion for decades has been that rapid response is best. We have ingrained it in our firefighters, demanded it of our politicians and assimilated the public to a large extent.
By Don Jolley
We have made it a fundamental component of legislation locally and beyond in many areas in North America. We have entrenched it into industry standards from NFPA and others. Much of it is validated, some experiential, some very much anecdotal. But always, it resides to form part of nearly every controversial conversation around fire services worldwide.
Why then, has the fire service not completely endorsed, advocated for and demanded at the highest level the inclusion of fire sprinklers in every home, everywhere? I have heard, even recently, chief officers and prevention staff telling me that they do not fully support residential fire sprinklers. “They fail too often.” “We need to go anyways so why waste people’s money?” “They take away from what firefighters do.” It is very true that fires are not the only calls that firefighters respond to in modern society, far from it. However, they are certainly the most high profile and potentially catastrophic incidents we attend. Given actual structural fires are likely less than five per cent of our total call volumes, the argument is abundantly clear that fire sprinklers will not reduce staffing levels. There are far too many other important roles.
However, when I look at this perplexing phenomenon another way, even the naysayers are in fact validating the need for fire sprinklers in homes. The same fire service individuals with negative views are also very likely to be the ones who adamantly demand increased staff and fire halls to reduce response times. Overtly they are stating to elected officials and the public that speed is everything. Subliminally though, they are validating the argument for residential fire sprinklers in a very strong manner. There will never be a quicker response than a fire sprinkler head activating in response to a fire in the incipient, or other early stages. No response from suppression personnel or equipment could ever get there as fast. To even the most stridently opposed, this fact must be blatantly obvious.
Fortunately, the times are changing. By the time you read this article, the Home and Family Sprinkler Summit will have been held in Langley Township. Presented by the Fire Chiefs’ Association of British Columbia, and under the co-ordination of Chief Stephen Gamble, the target audience is diverse; from builders, to building inspectors, technicians to fire chiefs, and media to elected officials. At it, national experts in residential sprinklers, fire survivors, sprinkler advocates, and progressive professionals will have dispelled many persistent myths, presented many relevant and important facts, and demonstrated the unique and undeniable effectiveness of these life and property saving devices.
As a fire service, across this nation, we all need to set aside bias and tradition and recognize the future. In-building suppression and control devices – fire sprinklers only being the current format – are becoming more sought after by safety-conscious home owners and more affordable to them. If you can install an in-ground lawn sprinkler system or granite countertops you have the funds necessary to install residential fire sprinklers in a new home. British Columbia is moving slowly, but steadily, toward legislation that will enable communities to require fire sprinklers in all new homes. Some in B.C. already have this requirement and are leading the way. The path to get everyone on board will be long, but as professionals sworn to protect the public from fire and other threats, there is no alternative. Fire sprinklers, and their future iterations, are the leading edge in fire safety. There simply is no other consideration that could be even close to equivalent and it is time that every firefighter, inspector and officer at all levels recognize this and live up to our sworn oath to protect.
Learn about fire sprinklers from experts, not pessimists. Research materials abound; read them and ask questions. More sprinkler summits will occur across Canada; attend one, or more. The Fire Sprinkler Coalition program is in place and will hopefully be embraced nationally, join up and/or visit the website at www.homefiresprinkler.org. Finally, recognize that fire sprinklers will save firefighter lives. You all believe in the importance of response times, so I now challenge you to advocate for the fastest response of all to fire – fire sprinklers.
Don Jolley is the fire chief for the City of Pitt Meadows, and the first vice-president of the Fire Chiefs’ Association of British Columbia. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org