Government & Politics

Fire sprinklers in new houses: Great idea, experts say, but states ban requiring them

Every time a child dies in a fire, it tugs at your heart, says Rick Ennis, the fire chief of Cape Girardeau, Mo. But the story of a little girl in upstate New York disturbed him more than most.

Two-year-old Nora Lamirande was in her crib one Sunday afternoon in 2015 when her mother left for a moment to escort the toddler’s 4-year-old brother home from the neighbor’s. Dad was away at work. So no one heard the smoke alarm when a fast-moving fire broke out in the kitchen.

Neighbors made desperate attempts at rescue. But by the time firefighters arrived, Nora was dead in the upstairs bedroom.

“It was a new house!” Ennis said. It should have had a sprinkler system, which would have saved the little girl, he said.

“That aggravated me.”

So aggravated that Ennis wrote an essay that went viral within the nation’s fire service and has since become a key tool in the national campaign to make fire sprinklers mandatory in all new homes and duplexes built in the United States.

Why, Ennis asked, wasn’t Nora’s home equipped with sprinklers when a national model building code requiring them in new homes and duplexes kicked in two years before it was built?

Ennis, chair of the Missouri Fire Sprinkler Coalition, already knew the answer. Like Missouri, Kansas and most other states, New York had chosen to exempt itself from that section of the International Residential Code.

He and many others in the fire service find that appalling when studies show that 80 percent of the 2,500 people killed in house fires annually in the United States would have survived had a sprinkler system activated. And according to the Kansas state fire marshal, they clearly would have played a role in reducing the property loss and injuries when a group home caught fire March 22 in Overland Park, sending six people to the hospital.

“At some point,” Ennis said, “we have to draw the line and start building homes with fire sprinklers.”

So far, that is not happening in any meaningful numbers outside of the two states — California and Maryland — that along with the District of Columbia adopted the sprinkler requirement. It was included in the 2009 model residential building code and two subsequent editions.

Thanks to the lobbying efforts of the National Association of Home Builders, most new house and duplexes in the 48 other states continue to be built without sprinklers.

Bowing to the wishes of local and national home builders groups, Missouri, Kansas and 29 other states have in the past several years passed laws banning local governments from enacting their own fire sprinkler requirements for private homes.

Seventeen other states have chosen to let cities and counties decide whether to adopt the sprinkler standard. Most have not required sprinklers.

Lawmakers justify their decision to limit local government power by citing individuals’ freedom of choice and the financial burden of installing sprinkler systems. Depending on the size of the home, a system can cost a few thousands dollars, based on an average price of $1.35 a square foot in a 2013 study. But experts say they can be installed for less than half that.

Typical was the position taken by then-Kansas state Rep. Amanda Grosserode in explaining why in 2011 she was voting to make permanent a then-temporary ban on local sprinkler requirements.

“It is my belief,” the Lenexa Republican wrote her constituents then, “that it is the role of government to protect the people not from themselves, but from over-zealous government and regulation.”

Unseated in last fall’s election, Grosserode said she still feels the same way.

“People may be open to purchasing sprinkler systems,” she said, “but that still doesn’t mean local governments should be able to mandate it, thus increasing the cost of the home.”

The National Association of Home Builders says the extra cost can price some people out of the market.

“It is important to note,” Kari English at the Home Builders Association of Greater Kansas City wrote The Star, “that the association is not opposed to installing fire sprinklers in new homes; it would just prefer the buyers be the ones to make that decision.”

Fire safety advocates say, however, that home builders’ arguments are misinformed. Not only are fire suppression systems not as costly as some make them out to be, the advocates say, the costs also tend to come down in markets where they are widely installed.

As to the argument about freedom of choice, Jeff Shapiro, executive director of the International Residential Code Fire Sprinkler Coalition, says leaving the decision to new-home buyers makes about as much sense as letting car buyers decide whether they get seat belts and air bags.

Government mandates, Shapiro says, are the only way safety measures are ever widely adopted. And unlike autos, new homes can last for decades and are resold to buyers who, even if they wanted to add sprinklers, are unlikely to do so because the cost of retrofitting is double what it takes to install sprinklers at the outset.

“Almost all fire deaths at home are preventable through the use of sprinklers and smoke alarms,” he said, “and those who make the decision not to install that equipment in their new home are indirectly responsible for any issues that occur in the future of that home, be it the current homeowner or anybody who buys it later.”

Sprinkler advocates don’t know how many fire fatalities have occurred in houses and duplexes built without sprinklers since the standard was adopted six years ago. Reporting agencies don’t cite the age of the buildings where those deaths occurred.

But the anecdotal evidence is heartbreaking.

In addition to Nora’s story in New York, Shapiro cites the case of a 6-year-old girl who died in September. Bella Lawyea was unable to escape when the 3-month-old Habitat for Humanity house her family lived in caught fire in Plainfield, Conn.

Bella, whose mother was critically injured in the fire, has become the poster child for a campaign to enact mandatory fire sprinkler legislation in that state, which bans local sprinkler requirements for new homes.

“This did not have to happen,” reads a full-page ad in the Hartford Courant. “Failure to act when the solution is in our grasp will only lead to further tragedies and places little value on the lives lost from fire. Aren’t our lives — and the life of a 6-year-old girl — worth protecting?”

Today’s fires deadlier

The fire service has advocated for sprinklers for decades. But the push to install them in new homes has intensified in recent years as structure fires have grown deadlier.

While the overall number of structure fires and fire fatalities nationwide has fallen dramatically since the early 1970s, when 12,000 fire deaths were recorded annually, the time people have to escape after a smoke alarm sounds has tightened drastically.

Molded plastics and other man-made materials that make up the contents of most rooms today are far more flammable than the natural fabrics and materials they replaced. Synthetics burn faster and hotter and produce toxic gases that can incapacitate and kill in seconds.

Today’s lightweight construction materials, made out of composites, also are quicker to burn and collapse.

The result is that “flashover,” the point at which a room on fire becomes unsurvivable even for firefighters in protective gear, can now occur in as little as three minutes, compared with 20 minutes or more a few decades ago.

Sprinklers buy occupants time to escape, and they make conditions safer for firefighters responding to the emergency, says former Shawnee Fire Chief Jeff Hudson.

Hudson now travels the western half of the United States promoting home fire-suppression systems in 26 states for the nonprofit National Fire Protection Association’s Fire Sprinkler Initiative.

“If we are going to impact the number of fire deaths in this country,” Hudson said, “we have to get sprinkler systems built into those homes.”

Hudson was still working for Shawnee in 2010 when the legislation prohibiting local sprinkler requirements for one- and two-family homes came up for a hearing in Topeka. Although no cities or counties were on the verge of adopting sprinkler mandates at the time, local governments and fire departments across the state were against any legislation that would tie their hands.

“The whole fire service in the state opposed it,” current Kansas State Fire Marshal Doug Jorgensen said.

Hudson was one of the many who testified against the ban, to no avail.

The next month, his department suffered its first line-of-duty death in a Shawnee house fire.

John Glaser, a 33-year-old married father of two, died while searching for possible occupants during that blaze in May 2010. Glaser had removed his air mask to clear it of vomit and succumbed to the smoke he inhaled.

“Had there been a sprinkler system in that home,” Hudson said, “I am absolutely convinced that the firefighter would not have died.”

Although Glaser’s death was not the inspiration for Hudson’s current calling, the incident is never far from his mind as he tries to advance the wisdom of installing sprinklers as a life-safety measure.

In states that allow local sprinkler requirements for houses, he tells cities they can save some of the money they now spend on fire suppression. More homes with sprinklers means being able to get by with fewer fire hydrants and fire stations, not to mention firefighters.

He tells developers that by installing sprinklers in every dwelling in a new neighborhood, they often can persuade city government to approve narrower streets, because not all have to be wide enough to provide space for cars on either side and a center lane wide enough for a fire engine. They also can build houses closer together because there’s less chance of fires spreading.

And to the average home buyer, he explains that home sprinklers are not as ugly as the industrial ones in big-box stores. The pipes are made of plastic and concealed beneath walls and ceilings. The sprinkler heads are disguised, and if one goes off, the others won’t unless the fire spreads.

What’s more, insurance companies often provide discounts of roughly 5 to 12 percent, varying by customer and state, in homes with sprinklers.

As evidence of his claims, Hudson points to places like San Clemente, Calif., which in 1979 was the first city in the nation to require home sprinkler systems. Scottsdale, Ariz., has required sprinklers in new homes for 30 years.

Fifteen years into its program, Scottsdale issued a report in 2001 that’s still on its website. It shows that when a fire occurs, there’s less damage in homes with sprinklers than in those without — $2,166 per incident versus $45,019. One reason: It took less water to extinguish a fire in its early stages with a sprinkler system — 341 gallons versus 2,935 when firefighters open their nozzles.

No one knows how many homes in the Kansas City area have sprinkler systems. Not even the Home Builders Association can tell you.

“We don’t have a way to track the number of fire sprinklers installed in new homes,” the association’s spokeswoman said. “Our builders offer it as an option, but it isn’t always added due to the cost of implementation and maintenance.”

The Star could find no local Kansas City developer touting a neighborhood with sprinklers in every home.

But there is one being built in the St. Louis area.

Once a sprinkler skeptic, Eureka, Mo., developer Dale Hicks is marketing lots in a “villa community” where 18 to 20 homes, starting at $250,000, will be fitted with a sprinkler system whether the buyer wants one or not.

“I was opposed to this, and just thought this was another cost driver in the construction industry,” Hicks said. Besides, the houses he builds are made of concrete and unlikely to burn.

But Hicks changed his mind after the Eureka fire marshal explained how it’s not the house but the burning contents that often kill people.

“We have so many petrochemicals in our houses,” Hicks said. “What they call flashover can occur in just a couple of minutes, and you cannot escape it. So the light bulb went on for me.”

Sprinklers have long been required in big commercial buildings and apartments.

A working sprinkler system might well have quelled that big fire two weeks ago in Overland Park before it grew to an eight-alarm disaster. But the apartment house where a welder’s torch set it off was under construction, and the system wasn’t hooked up.

Home fire sprinklers, on the other hand, would not have made much of a difference in lessening damage to the many houses whose roofs caught fire from wind-blown embers from the burning apartment building.

But sprinklers might well have lessened property damage and injuries suffered when fire broke out in an Overland Park group home less than 48 hours later, the state fire marshal said.

Six people were hospitalized, one of them in critical condition. The state requires sprinklers in some group homes but waives the requirement in homes where occupants can escape within three minutes during a fire drill. The Overland Park group home had such a waiver.

Overland Park Fire Chief Bryan Dehner declined to speculate what role sprinklers might have played in helping occupants escape without injury.

But he volunteered that one-third of the city’s 185,000 residents now live in multifamily dwellings, which are largely protected by sprinklers.

“We have never had a fire fatality in a location with a sprinkler system” Dehner said.

Mike Hendricks: 816-234-4738, @kcmikehendricks