New study shows sprinklers save lives

Research results underscore importance of automated systems in homes
September 05, 2018
Written by Len Garis and Karin Mark
Having a sprinkler system in your home can reduce your chance of dying in a fire by 79 per cent, according to a new study based on 10 years of Canadian fire data.

Released in April by the University of the Fraser Valley in B.C., the study appears to bolster the call for mandatory sprinklers in all new homes in the leadup to the 2020 version of the National Building Code.

Sprinkler Systems and Residential Structure Fires – Revisited: Exploring the Impact of Sprinklers for Life Safety and Fire Spread was written by Len Garis, Arpreet Singh, Joseph Clare, Sarah Hughan and Alex Tyakoff, who analyzed more than 439,000 fire incidents reported in B.C., Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and New Brunswick between 2005 and 2015.

“We wanted to take a fresh look at the data in light of modern-day fire response, demographics and building fire risk,” said co-author Clare, a senior criminology lecturer at the University of Western Australia and an international member of the Institute of Canadian Urban Research Studies at Simon Fraser University. “The results underscore the life-saving potential of automated sprinklers in all residential settings, particularly when paired with working smoke alarms.”

The study focused on casualty behaviour, fire spread and fire department resources in residential fires, which numbered 140,162 in the 10-year timeframe. Based on the findings, the death rate per 1,000 in non-sprinklered homes is more than triple that of sprinklered homes, and people are more than twice as likely to be seriously injured in a fire in a non-sprinklered home as in a sprinklered one.

The data also revealed that fires in single-family homes caused more deaths than those in apartments, that senior citizens were more likely to die in a residential fire than younger people, and that fires in sprinklered homes required significantly less fire department intervention.

The findings support the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs’ (CAFC) multi-year campaign pushing for mandatory sprinkler systems in all new homes – including single-family dwellings – in the National Building Code.

“We can conclude that increasing the use of residential sprinkler systems would have a rising impact in the years to come, both because Canada’s population is aging and because modern-day furnishings, building materials and open-plan designs carry a higher fire load, as research has shown,” Clare noted.

The study builds on an extensive body of existing research on residential sprinkler systems, including a 2013 study by Garis and Clare and a pivotal 1984 study A Benefit-Cost Model of Residential Fire Sprinkler Systems by S. Ruegg and S. Fuller that demonstrated a 63-to-69-per-cent reduction in the death rate per 1,000 fires, and prompted the U.S. Fire Administration official position that all homes should be equipped with both smoke alarms and automatic fire sprinklers, and all families should have and practice an emergency escape plan.

Data for the new study was provided by the CAFC and the Council of Canadian Fire Marshals and Fire Commissioners through Statistics Canada. Fire incident information available in the National Fire Information Database was also used to examine casualty behaviour, fire spread and fire department response.

Overall, 97 per cent of the fires studied occurred in residential buildings without sprinklers. These fires resulted in 97 per cent of the injuries and 99.2 per cent of the deaths. Less than one per cent (0.6 per cent) of fires in single-family homes occurred in the presence of sprinkler protection. Of note:
  • The death rate per 1,000 for fires in sprinklered homes was 0.9, compared to 3.3 in non-sprinklered ones.
  • Only 10 per cent of injuries in fires in sprinklered homes were serious, compared to 23 per cent in non-sprinklered ones.
  • Risk of death was not equal among ages and genders. People age 65 and up made up 30 per cent of the fire deaths in single-family dwellings and more than 33 per cent in apartment buildings. Males represented about two-thirds of all those injured or killed in a residential fire.
Sprinklers were also shown to be successful in controlling fire spread. When sprinklers activated, fires were confined to the room of origin 88.4 per cent of the time, which was 1.35 times more frequently than for non-sprinklered buildings. When the type of housing was considered, the disparity was greatest for single-family homes, where fires with sprinkler activations were confined to the room of origin 1.5 times more frequently. In apartments, fires with sprinkler activations were confined to the room of origin 1.1 times more frequently.

In total, only 1.6 per cent of fires in sprinklered properties spread beyond the building, compared to 5.7 per cent in non-sprinklered properties.

Firefighters were also safer when working in sprinklered buildings. They were injured 1.6 times more frequently in non-sprinklered buildings. No serious firefighter injuries were reported in sprinklered building fires, as opposed to 15 per cent for non-sprinklered building fires.

It should be noted that due to variations of fire spread and size or other fire-control mechanisms, sprinkler systems did not always activate when fires occurred. Sprinklers were only required to control 18 per cent of the fires in apartments or 28 per cent of the fires in houses.

Overall, the study makes a strong case for the increased use of sprinkler systems in all types of residential buildings to reduce fire-related injuries, deaths and resource use.

The protection is even greater when combined with early detection. Based on the new findings in combination with earlier research, it can be concluded that fire-related death rates per 1,000 fires are reduced by 43.7 per cent with working smoke alarms and 79 per cent with sprinkler systems.

What can Canada’s fire community take away from this?

“This is further evidence that mandatory sprinkler systems in all new homes would be a large, positive step towards furthering residential fire safety in Canada,” Clare said. “At the same time, we need to acknowledge that most of the population will continue to live in existing non-sprinklered homes. The approach going forward must include working smoke alarms, along with targeted strategies to protect older Canadians and others at higher risk.”

The study can be downloaded for free from the University of the Fraser Valley’s public safety and criminal justice research database at cjr.ufv.ca/sprinkler-systems-and-residential-structure-fires-revisited-exploring-the-impact-of-sprinklers-for-life-safety-and-fire-spread/.


Len Garis is the fire chief for the City of Surrey, B.C. He is also an adjunct professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice and associate to the Centre for Social Research at the University of the Fraser Valley in B.C. Contact Len at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . Karin Mark is a former newspaper reporter who writes for publications and provides communications and design services in Metro Vancouver, B.C.

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