NFPA Impact: A fire chief’s role in sprinkler education
March 15, 2021
By Sean Tracey
I am a recently retired deputy chief from Ottawa, and before Shayne Mintz, I was the NFPA Canadian regional director. In retirement, I became chair of the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition (HFSC) in Canada to help chief fire officials understand what they can do to encourage home buyers, builders, and municipal leaders to embrace residential fire sprinklers. Those who understand the benefits of home fire sprinklers need to shed greater light on these essential life-saving systems to prevent injuries, fatalities, and property loss.
The biggest challenge to the fire service in seeing greater acceptance of residential fire sprinklers has been education – education of all players: builders; home buyers; and even our own colleagues. This lack of education about the benefits of home fire sprinklers, and even how sprinkler systems function, continues to stymie us, and we continue to see the proliferation of myths and misconceptions.
One major misconception that I want to shatter is that fire chiefs are unable to require residential fire sprinklers in their areas. Fire chiefs often cite provincial regulations prohibiting bylaws. This is simply not true. Although in Ontario and Alberta provincial regulations prohibit a municipality from adopting a sprinkler bylaw, they do not stop any fire service from requiring sprinklers in individual developments if there are challenges to the fire department’s response capabilities. Any fire department in Canada can require sprinklers as a condition of development if fire protection standards cannot be met. Fire chiefs must, however, be engaged by reviewing all new building developments in their communities to catch these shortfalls and ensure that these developments are adequately protected.
Provisions in the national and provincial building codes assume there is an adequate fire service response. More stringent requirements than what are stated in the codes can be demanded anywhere the municipal fire service is inadequate. However, the codes are silent on what an adequate fire department is; they leave this to the local authorities (in my interpretation, solely the fire chief) to determine what is adequate. Anywhere that response times cannot be met with an effective response force (EFR) in a reasonable time and with adequate water supply should require additional building-code measures. (An EFR is not defined in the codes but the best model for this in NFPA 1710 or your municipality’s approved standard of cover). Additional provisions could involve doubling the separations between houses or requiring sprinklers.
Residential fire sprinklers can also be considered by the local fire service in other cases as a trade-off or equivalencies under the codes. Areas with water-supply or fire fighting challenges, or with limited access routes, could address these deficiencies using sprinklers. Fire chiefs can require sprinklers as an offset, but this can be done only if they are engaged in the earliest stages of development approval.
As our communities expand outward, the developers’ rate of building can outstrip the ability of the municipalities to finance, build, and then resource fire halls. This leaves these new homes at a greater risk, as response-time objectives cannot be met. It can be several years until new firehalls are built. Rather than curbing development, mandating residential fire sprinklers can be an essential stopgap measure until the new fire hall is provided.
The Livingston community, Calgary’s 2020 Community of The Year, is a case in point. The developer has opted to install fire sprinklers in all buildings, including 15,000 new single-family homes, a positive feature for marketing the homes as “one of the most fire-safe communities in Canada.” Development was approved ahead of fire hall construction as the homes were all sprinkler protected. Livingston is the perfect example of co-operation among a developer, its builder partners, the City of Calgary, and a contractor.
Now is an ideal time to revitalize a national push for residential fire sprinklers. Research and fire-loss experience support the wider acceptance of home fire sprinklers. Acceptance does, however, require fire-service leaders to encourage installation these essential life-saving systems by educating the public and engaging with builders.The HFSC Canada website (homefiresprinklercanada.ca) has resources to support fire chiefs and fire departments in these efforts. By addressing education, we can increase awareness of the benefits of home-fire sprinklers and increase their acceptance.
Sean Tracey is the chair of the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition Canada. He is a former deputy chief with Ottawa Fire, and former NFPA regional director, Canada. Contact Sean at Stracey1683@gmail.com. Follow HFSC Canada on Twitter at @HFSCinCanada
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