The saying “Location, location, location!” takes on a whole new meaning when it comes to home safety. Eight Washington state municipalities now require that builders equip all new single-family and multifamily homes with fire sprinkler systems. Fire officials report that the new sprinkler systems are saving lives, reducing property damage and protecting firefighters who respond to emergency calls.

Redmond adopted fire sprinkler requirements for new construction in 2007. Fire Marshal Todd Short reports that now more than half of the city’s 15,000 multifamily units, and 10% of its single-family dwellings, are equipped.

Short and other fire officials welcome the fire sprinkler systems because over the past 25 years residential fires have imposed new risks to homeowners while making it more dangerous for firefighters.

New materials, new dangers

Suzanne Mayr, director of the Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board of Puget Sound, works with public officials, regulatory agencies and the fire sprinkler manufacturers and installers to raise public awareness of fire dangers and the use of sprinklers systems for home protection.

“New house designs with open plans and first-floor great rooms have made it easier for fire to spread rapidly,” she says. At the same time, natural materials used in furnishings have been replaced by plastics and synthetics.

“Materials like polypropylene and plastic burn fast, just like gasoline,” Mayr says. “These materials emit a dark, toxic smoke. Many times people who die in a fire aren’t dying from the flames — they are dying from inhaling the hot, toxic gases from burning plastics.”

These faster fires can engulf a home and kill people in a matter of minutes, well before fire trucks arrive. Short says that in most cities, firefighters can reach the scene of a fire within 6 to 8 minutes of a 911 call. They can typically begin to get water on the fire in 10 to 13 minutes. But now that may be too late.

“Our response times are the same, but our ability to provide positive outcomes has eroded,” Short says.

The fire sprinkler difference

A residential fire sprinkler system is separate from a home’s regular plumbing system. It is configured to place a temperature-sensitive sprinkler head in each room and hallway. If the temperature in a room reaches 155 degrees, the nearest sprinkler head will release water from the pipes — 10 to 20 gallons a minute — to cool the room. This extinguishes the fire or controls it until firefighters arrive.

When asked about the effectiveness of fire sprinkler systems, Short tells the stories of two fires that took place this year in Redmond.

The first fire, in May, occurred in an older multifamily building with no fire sprinkler system. The multialarm fire had 23 trucks, aid cars and other emergency vehicles from Redmond and five nearby towns responding to the scene. It took two hours and 15,000 gallons of water to fully extinguish the blaze.

The second fire, in August, occurred in a multifamily building equipped with a fire sprinkler system. Flames from a burning box left on the stovetop reached a cabinet and set off a sprinkler head in the kitchen ceiling. The fire department arrived to find the fire already out.

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“We utilized two units,” Short says. “They turned off the sprinkler, checked the adjoining apartments, and cleaned up the water.” The amount of water released by the sprinkler head was a fraction of the amount required to extinguish the first blaze.

Raising awareness

Ultimately, the decision to require fire sprinkler systems for new residential construction rests with the municipality. Currently eight Washington municipalities — including Redmond, Mercer Island and Kenmore — have adopted some version of the fire-sprinkler requirement from the International Residential Code, Mayr says.

“Different cities have different reasons for requiring sprinklers,” Mayr says. “If they have steep grades or narrow roads that make it difficult for the fire department to respond quickly, they may require fire sprinklers to address that.” She notes that some towns mandate sprinklers specifically for new homes that are exceptionally large or on lots that are exceptionally difficult for fire trucks to reach.

While it would be ideal to have all homes protected with fire sprinklers, regulations are limited to new construction because it is much easier, and less expensive, to install systems while a house or apartment is under construction. Retrofitting existing homes can be done, but is far more complex, Mayr says.

“We are focusing on new home construction and trying to raise awareness,” she says. “The bottom line is that sprinklers buy time, and time buys lives.”

For over a century, the National Fire Sprinkler Association has advocated to protect lives and property through the widespread acceptance of fire sprinklers. Our local contractor members add their skills and experience to this effort.