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Loudoun fire official joins initiative to try to make fire sprinklers mandatory in homes

By Timothy Wilson
Thursday, March 10, 2011; T18

Chief Fire Marshal W. Keith Brower Jr. heard the distress signal come across the radio for firefighters who were trapped in a two-alarm house fire near Leesburg. But there was nothing he could do.

Six firefighters were injured while battling the blaze in 2008, which was caused by a discarded cigarette tossed on a front porch. One firefighter was so severely burned that he eventually retired because of his injuries.

Instead of additional manpower, Brower said, a simple change in Virginia's building code requiring home fire sprinkler systems could have made a greater difference.

"We think they're the best protection for occupant escape," he said. "They're also becoming a critical tool for firefighter safety."

Three years later, fire sprinkler systems for single-family homes or townhomes are still not required in Virginia. But Brower said that he won't give up and that he recently joined a national initiative to promote mandatory fire sprinkler systems.

Last year, the National Fire Protection Association launched "Faces of Fire," a campaign to promote required installation of sprinklers in new one- and two-family homes throughout the country.

The campaign relies on personal stories of home fire survivors, family members of victims and first responders who have been affected by the lack of sprinklers in homes.

"Home fire sprinklers save lives, protect property and are affordable in new construction," James M. Shannon, president of the association, said in a statement. "They should not be considered optional in new homes."

"Sprinklers are voluntary in Virginia, not mandatory," Brower said. "If the home buyer wants them bad enough, [builders] will put them in," he said.

Some builders have said that putting sprinkler systems in homes would be too expensive, putting some homes out of reach for potential buyers.

A report by the Fire Protection Research Foundation in 2008 said the additional expense of a home sprinkler system for a builder would average about $1.61 per square foot.

For a new, 2,000-square-foot single-family home, a system could cost about $3,200.

In 1992, Prince George's County enacted an ordinance mandating the installation of sprinkler systems in new single-family or townhome structures. About 13,500 fires were reported in the county for those homes from 1992 to 2007, according to a 2009 report by the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition.

More than 100 deaths and 300 civilian injuries were reported for homes in Prince George's that were not protected with fire sprinkler systems, according to the report. At homes with sprinkler systems, no deaths were reported; there were six civilian injuries.

In Virginia, building codes are statewide and can't be changed by local jurisdictions.

The 2009 Virginia Code was enacted this month. Any changes won't be discussed until late 2012, state officials said.

Brower, who has worked in Loudoun's fire department for almost 40 years, said he hopes the campaign will spur residents to demand changes from builders and policymakers.

"We are fighting a losing battle. We'll keep trying," he said. "That's the best we can do."

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