Sprinkle, Sprinkle, Little Star
You know what bugs me? Urban myths. I hate it when inaccurate, misleading or downright wrong information is perpetuated by the media, the entertainment industry or just spread through the grapevine. Sometimes it is just a pet peeve or an annoyance, but it can be a big deal when the public gets bad information about an issue that is needlessly costing the lives of dozens of Canadians each year.
Most people have never seen a sprinkler system in action. They haven’t had the dubious honour of being the junior firefighter who has to clamber up onto a desk and jam a couple of wedges into an active sprinkler head, getting totally drenched in the process. The impression that most people have is that these devices go off at a whim, are unreliable and cause huge dollar losses through water damage. Therein lies the urban myth.
Let’s give the average homeowner/buyer some credit. They’re not stupid, and they want to protect their investment and their family. We are halfway there with the smoke alarm message, maybe about where we were with drunk driving twenty years ago. The need is recognized, the legislation is in place, but compliance is still spotty. We, the Fire Service, have lost our shyness about publicly stating that specific lives could have been saved with a working smoke alarm. Charges are laid that were not laid in the past. The difference between smoke alarms and sprinklers is that nobody ever muddied the waters with disinformation about smoke alarms. Sure there is the odd tenant out there who thinks the RCMP is spying on them through the thing, but for the most part the public understands what a smoke alarm is and how it can save their lives. On the other hand, what information do they receive on residential sprinklers?
Typical scene; the hero is trapped behind the door of the office or warehouse, and the bad guys are closing in. Thinking fast, he lights a cigarette, blows a puff of smoke at a detector, and ba-woosh! Every sprinkler head in the building simultaneously spews out a tsunami of water that electrocutes the bad guys. If I’m exaggerating here, it’s not by much. I have yet to see an accurate portrayal in a TV drama of how a sprinkler system, or any fire protection system for that matter, operates. People only have the information that is presented to them; and if this is all you knew, would you rush out and get a residential sprinkler system installed in your home?
According to Mike Holmes, the host of Holmes on Homes on HGTV, “Making residential sprinklers mandatory in all new construction is a Band-Aid solution.”](http://www.nachi.org/forum/newthread.php?do=newthread&f=48#_ftn1) Holmes also states “When it comes to fire safety in your house, the right options, hands down, are smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors and fire extinguishers.” Well, what advocate of residential sprinklers has ever advised AGAINST smoke alarms, CO alarms or fire extinguishers? Sorry, Mike, but you have bought into the argument that many home builders associations have been putting forward, instead of listening to the fire service and the insurance industry. Sprinklers are not very expensive, are extremely reliable and have enormous potential to save lives. If sprinklers caused more damage from water than they prevented from fire, then why would the insurance industry advocate their use? When was the last time the insurance industry backed the wrong horse?
There are several progressive communities that have enacted bylaws requiring sprinklers in all new residential construction. Of course, developers will pass the cost of the sprinkler system on to the buyer. This may amount to a $3,000 to $5,000 cost disadvantage if the development requires sprinklers, versus locating the development just down the road in the next town. Many arguments have been put forward by fire service insiders that this could be made into a marketing point based on the enhanced safety of the sprinklered home, for roughly the same cost as a carpet upgrade or interlocking brick driveway. Let’s face reality – the average homeowner would put either of those options way above sprinklers on their priority list. They would be more likely to install a sprinkler system for their lawn than for their home. It will take many more years of consistent messaging on our part to get the public to a level of acceptance of sprinklers that compares to that of smoke alarms, and many lives could be needlessly lost over those years.
So if the costs are passed along to the homebuyer, what is the advantage to the municipality? Is it pure altruism and concern for public safety? Maybe to a certain extent, but this also bears some examination. A 1999 study](http://www.nachi.org/forum/newthread.php?do=newthread&f=48#_ftn2) by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation identified that savings to municipalities could occur if fire service response times in sprinklered developments could be lengthened, which could occur if there were significant opportunities for new development beyond the areas presently served from existing fire stations, and “the fire department’s role is fire suppression, and only secondary support is provided for non-fire emergency services when requested.” It worries me that some fire chiefs are repeating this argument, and are willing to turn back the clock to allow longer response times. Sprinklers may buy us time in a fire situation, but what about Grampa’s heart attack or the kid trapped in the collapsed snowbank? Don’t they deserve the fastest possible response? Will homeowners in those new developments get a tax break from the municipality to compensate them for the reduced level of service?
So let’s take the pressure off of the municipality and put residential sprinkler regulation where it should be – in the fire code at the provincial level. This will create an even playing field for attracting new development. At the same time, let’s keep our eye on our primary mission of saving lives – not just reducing insurance losses and infrastructure costs.