Codes and standards
NFPA Impact: The fire service in Canada needs to get behind residential fire sprinklers
By Sean Tracey
All fire safety strategies can be regarded as ways of reducing the risk of unwanted fire, whether it be risk to the lives and health of people, risk to property, risk to the continuity of businesses or other organizations, or its impact on cultural heritage or the environment. Risk involves considerations of likelihood of fire occurrence and severity of harm if fire occurs. Likelihood is reduced through fire prevention programs, whether changes in behaviour through education or engineered changes in products that provide initial heat sources or first fuels.
By Sean Tracey
All fire safety strategies can be regarded as ways of reducing the risk of unwanted fire, whether it be risk to the lives and health of people, risk to property, risk to the continuity of businesses or other organizations, or its impact on cultural heritage or the environment. Risk involves considerations of likelihood of fire occurrence and severity of harm if fire occurs. Likelihood is reduced through fire prevention programs, whether changes in behaviour through education or engineered changes in products that provide initial heat sources or first fuels. Severity is reduced through fire protection programs, by slowing down, containing or stopping the growth of fire and the spread of fire. The greatest fire safety success story of the past third of a century has been a fire protection strategy – the home smoke alarm. The greatest potential for future reduction in fire losses is another fire protection strategy – the residential fire sprinkler.
An overview of fire loss in Canada (1995-2004)
In 2001 the Canadian Council of Fire Marshals and Fire Commissioners stated of the 55,323 fires that were reported there were 338 fatalities and 2,310 reported injuries in Canada. Residential fires accounted for 39 per cent of total fires but 73 per cent of the fatalities. Although the number of fire fatalities continues to decline, Canada’s fire death rate continues to be higher than the fire death rate in most comparable countries around the world, including nearly all the nations of Europe. Clearly, Canada is not as safe as we can be or as safe as we should be.
In 2001 in Canada, fires in all residential occupancies regulated under the building codes accounted for 96.7 per cent of the fire fatalities in all buildings and other structures (2001 Fire Marshal statistics for all property classes removing fire fatalities for equipment and vehicles). We are at greatest risk from fire where we should feel most secure. Most of the other property classes are required to be sprinklered in accordance with building codes. If we are serious about further reducing fire death rates, our strategy must focus on homes. This is true whether the place called home is a detached dwelling, a manufactured home, a two-family dwelling or an apartment or flat in a multiple-household building. All types of homes show significant and comparable fire death rates.
Canada’s progress has been almost entirely a matter of greater prevention; that is, fewer fires per million population. Severity of fires, expressed in terms of fatalities per 100 fires, has shown no significant or sustained progress in the past decade. A review of national fire statistics for this period will show the average to be level or slightly increasing at 1.20 fatalities per 100 fires. Although we are reducing the frequency of fires they are just as life-threatening as they were a decade ago.
The recent NFPA report, “U.S. Experience with Sprinklers and Other Fire Extinguishing Equipment,” examined the U.S. experience with fire sprinklers. This report determined that fire sprinklers reduce average fire severity, whether measured in fire deaths per 100 fires or property damage per fire, by one-half to two-thirds, in all types of buildings.
Although sprinkler usage in homes remains limited, enough statistical fire experience has been reported to show that these dramatic savings in lives also apply to homes, where the base fire death rate is the highest, and they apply even on top of the considerable savings achieved through the use of home smoke alarms (NFPA: “U.S. Experience with Sprinklers” report August 2005, Dr. J. Hall, et al). The presence of smoke alarms alone, however, does not generate the same potential life-saving benefits of both smoke alarms and fire sprinklers. In the period from 1995-2004 smoke alarms were present in 60 per cent of all fatal residential fires in Ontario (Ontario Fire Marshal Backgrounder dated 3/7/2006, visit www.ofm.gov.on.ca/ english/FirePrevention and follow the links on smoke alarms). The added presence of fire sprinklers could further reduce the number of potential fatalities. A study by the National Bureau of Standards in the U.S. found that the estimated likelihood of dying in a fire is reduced by 82 per cent when both a smoke alarm and residential sprinkler are added to a home that had neither (Rosalie T. Ruegg and Sieglinde K. Fuller, “A Benefit-Cost Model of Residential Fire Sprinkler Systems,” NBS Technical Note 1203, Gaithersburg, Maryland: U.S. Department of Commerce, National Bureau of Standards, November 1984, Table 6.)
Societal cost factors are often raised as an issue against residential sprinklers. Presenters of this argument often point to the high cost of introducing these systems per life saved. Residential sprinkler systems have added benefits beyond just a life savings factor. There are further benefits of injury reduction as well as property protection. Experience from Scottsdale, Arizona, and Vancouver, B.C., has shown significant reduction in property losses in fires in sprinklered properties. Furthermore, municipalities can take advantage of many potential trade-ups by introducing such systems. We have the technology and means as a society to introduce sprinklers now and begin to take advantage of these savings. At some point we as a society must make a decision whether to continue to accept the current fire fatality rate. This should be a balanced decision and not a purely economical one.
Affordability and impact on growth
Opponents of residential sprinklers have argued elsewhere that, by raising the cost of housing, sprinklers make housing less affordable and have a negative impact on economic growth and development. Supporters point out that the cost of sprinklers is no greater than other housing upgrades that have become more common in housing in recent years. The experience in Scottsdale and Vancouver has shown that sprinkler ordinances can be adopted without adverse affects on growth.
Vancouver enacted a residential sprinkler ordinance in 1990. Vancouver’s subsequent reduction in fire deaths relative to population has been in the one-half to two-thirds range, even though a large share of existing homes were built before 1990 and so have no sprinklers. Vancouver experienced no economic downturn or development loss due to its bylaws. To the contrary, the city of Vancouver has experienced tremendous growth in real estate and its property values remain among the highest in Canada. Several urban centres around Vancouver have also enacted sprinkler provisions as they attempt to keep up with the pressures of urban sprawl while maintaining adequate fire protection levels. Many U.S. communities that have passed sprinkler requirements for new homes have been able to justify other changes – such as denser construction – that improve affordability and development while maintaining a high level of fire protection.
NFPA codes and residential sprinklers
In June 2005, the membership of NFPA approved the technical committees request to require mandatory residential sprinklers in all new residential occupancies. The 2006 editions of the NFPA’s building, fire and life safety codes now require this. This was initiative driven with passion by the fire service in the United States. The Canadian fire service should consider similar leadership.
In Ontario, a private members bill has also been introduced with support from the fire service, the insurance industry and the public. This bill, if passed, will require residential fire sprinklers in all new residential properties in Ontario. Support materials from a number of groups have been prepared and are available to assist other jurisdictions across Canada who are considering provincial bills or municipal by-laws. Resources are available through a number of websites and NFPA. As your Canadian regional manager, I am fully prepared to assist any community with their efforts to enact mandatory residential sprinklering. Although we have been successful in reducing the occurrences of fire in Canada we have not been able to reduce their severity. The endorsement and enactment of mandatory residential sprinklers will save lives.
Sean Tracey, P.Eng., MIFireE, is the Canadian regional manager of NFPA International and formerly the Canadian Armed Forces Fire Marshal. He may be reached at 613-830-9102, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org .