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Property Management – Northridge – Fire Sprinklers

 The Debate about Residential Fire Sprinklers

by Thomas Wieczorek and Alan Perdue


As the decision whether to require residential fire sprinklers reaches state and local governments, passionate arguments are being made by proponents and opponents alike. Encompassed in this emotional debate are data and research—some more reliable than others—along with myths and unsupported assumptions.

The challenge for managers and elected officials is determining the acceptable level of fire risk and making the best decision for their communities.

Several states have prevented local governments from adopting new sprinkler protection standards. Most recently Pennsylvania’s governor signed a bill postponing sprinkler provisions required in the most recent version of the model residential code. For local governments, installation of sprinklers offers a number of quality-of-life benefits, as demonstrated in recent studies.

Research in the United Kingdom resulted in a comprehensive adjustment to deployment strategy with a focus on prevention. The results were significant improvements in safety and corresponding decreases in losses from fire. Fires in single-family residences account for the majority of injuries and fatalities to the public and emergency responders.

If the magnitude of these fires could be reduced substantially, would it impact your response capabilities to other incidents in the future? If sprinklers improve the safety of residents as well as responders, could your community risk reduction plans and resource needs change if the number and magnitude of fires were drastically reduced or even eliminated?


Automatic fire sprinklers have been around since the late 1800s, when they were first installed to protect factories and textile mills. The excellent performance of fire sprinklers in limiting property loss in these buildings led to requirements in modern building and fire codes to protect most commercial buildings with automatic fire sprinkler systems.

These systems have a high reliability rate for protecting both property and human lives and have been accepted by the building community as an essential building design feature for commercial occupancies. Automatic fire sprinklers are also used to protect such high-rise residential buildings as hotels and apartment buildings, and they have proven effective for preserving property and reducing fire-related death and injury.

It wasn’t until the early 1970s that sprinklers were first considered for protecting other residential occupancies that include low-rise apartment buildings, townhouses, and one- and two-family dwellings. On May 4, 1973, the reportAmerica Burning provided a detailed analysis of the problem of fire in the United States.1

Public Safety Management Experience

ICMA’s Center for Public Safety Management staff members have worked with a number of communities that are researching current and future sprinkler deployment decisions. Addison, Texas, presented ICMA with one of the best views of what a community can look like if it is entirely sprinkler protected.

Addison has had a sprinkler ordinance for many years, and it has now reached a point of near build out. As older properties are demolished and new projects constructed, sprinklers have been installed. Builders have been required to install sprinklers in commercial properties that underwent renovation and upgrades.

The result has been fewer and fewer fire calls to the Addison Fire Department. Although the lack of calls poses additional challenges for the department (it must maintain competencies when there are few fire calls to which personnel must respond), the community has benefited by lower required investment needs for fire protection.

The Center coordinated a training program and a webinar in conjunction with the ICMA University earlier in 2011 that further outlined the sprinkler issues and the experiences in Addison.

This report, compiled by the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control, which had been authorized by President Richard Nixon, placed the annual national cost of fires at $11 billion, with more than 12,000 civilian fire deaths and tens of thousands of injuries, most occurring in residential occupancies. The report contained significant recommendations for reducing the nation’s fire problem through improved building codes and standards, fire prevention, public education, research, and improved firefighting equipment and training.

Many of the recommendations were implemented, but others were not, as noted in two follow-up reports about the nation’s fire problem: America Burning Revisited (1987) andAmerica Burning Recommissioned (1999).

One recommendation from the original America Burning report that was implemented in the 1970s was smoke alarms. Research and development programs provided a cost-effective product that could be installed in every home to provide an early warning to occupants of deadly smoke and fire. As requirements for smoke alarms were being introduced into model codes of the time, strong opposition was coming from the same opponents of today’s residential fire sprinkler requirements.

As time passed, smoke alarms became widely accepted, and their lifesaving accomplishment can be measured in the reduction in annual civilian fire deaths. The initial America Burning report indicated that in the early 1970s the annual residential life loss was approximately 10,000; recent statistics indicate that number has been reduced to 3,000.


Much as research in the 1970s helped produce cost-effective smoke alarms, continued technical improvements were also important to the development of cost-effective residential sprinklers. Automatic fire sprinklers for commercial buildings were designed for reducing property loss.

For residential fire sprinklers to be effective in saving lives, new types of sprinklers were necessary in order to react more quickly to home fires, use less water, and be aesthetically acceptable. It would also be critical for the fire sprinkler to rapidly respond to a typical residential fire and prevent room flashover, or the point when conditions (heat and smoke) are considered too severe for survival.

As technology for residential fire sprinklers started evolving, two new standards for residential fire sprinklers were being developed by the National Fire Protection Association ( NFPA 13R (for multifamily residential buildings) and NFPA 13D (for one- and two-family dwellings).

These standards have gone through several revision cycles to get to their current requirements for design, installation, and maintenance. Both of these standards are referenced in the International Residential Code (IRC), a model building code produced by the International Code Council (ICC;

During the development process, concerns about sprinkler purpose (life safety versus property protection), design criteria (in which rooms sprinklers will be installed), cost of installation (based on materials, water supply, and so forth), technical issues (effects of freezing temperatures, for example), limited water supply (rural areas, private wells), and prevention of accidental water damage were all addressed.

The standard for one- and two-family dwellings ultimately reduced many of the requirements used in commercial settings while providing a reliable and affordable life-safety sprinkler system. This was accomplished, in part, by only requiring protection of occupied spaces and reducing the water supply needed to allow occupants time to escape the building.


A report on the average installation cost for a fire sprinkler system in a newly constructed single-family home was prepared by the NFPA Research Foundation. It puts the average U.S. cost at a $1.61 per square foot.2

Local conditions may influence actual installation costs, however, and several communities have set up residential sprinkler system programs successfully. Scottsdale, Arizona, a newly planned community in the early 1980s, passed an ordinance requiring that all homes be constructed with residential fire sprinkler systems.

The benefits were profound and included no fire deaths and greatly reduced fire-related property damage. What’s more, the installation costs were actually reduced from $1.14 per square foot to $0.59 per square foot, presumably through economies of scale and competition.

Scottsdale has proven to be a leader in reducing its fire-related community risk through a comprehensive risk reduction program that included residential fire sprinklers from its inception.3

Local governments can also offer homebuilders financial incentives that offset the cost of installation of residential sprinklers. These incentives are outlined in an NFPA report, Incentives for the Use of Residential Fire Sprinkler Systems in U.S. Communities.4


The predominant model building code for residential construction is the IRC, produced by the ICC, a not-for-profit membership organization that also produces the international building code (IBC).

The IRC has been adopted at the state or local level in 48 states plus Washington, D.C.; U.S. Virgin Islands; and Puerto Rico. The 2009 edition of the IRC was the first edition to include mandatory requirements for the installation of residential sprinklers in townhouses and one- and two-family dwellings.

The concept of requiring residential fire sprinklers in IRC was not new to the 2009 code development cycle. During the previous cycle, the 2006 IRC included an option for jurisdictions wanting to include residential fire sprinklers as a fire risk reduction option though an adoptable appendix.

Prior code cycles considered the requirement, but the governmental members felt that technology and installation concerns had not yet been fully addressed. That position changed with the passage of the residential sprinkler requirement during final action hearings for the 2009 IRC.


Myths and misconceptions are widespread about potential water damage caused by sprinkler systems in large part to their inaccurate portrayal in movies and television shows. The fact: fire sprinklers in both residential and commercial buildings discharge water only when individually triggered by the heat from a fire.

so, only the closest sprinkler to the actual fire will activate. This is a far cry from movies that portray someone smoking a cigarette that causes every sprinkler in the building to spray water! It may appear humorous in the movies, but it’s totally misleading and pure fiction.

Concerns about accidental discharge from a broken pipe or sprinkler are also based on fiction. Insurance claims for broken washing machines cause more water damage than other plumbing fixtures, including sprinklers.

Misunderstandings also exist about the percentage of damage caused by water and by fire in a sprinklered home compared with a non-sprinklered home. Although water damage occurs from a fire in a sprinklered home, the alternative would be for a fire to continue to burn uncontrolled for approximately 10 minutes or more while a fire department is dispatched, en route, and setting up firefighting operations.

During that response and set up time period, heat and smoke continue to grow in size often destroying most of the home’s contents and more importantly endangering the occupants who are unable to safely escape. The arrival of the fire department to an uncontrolled fire results in using hundreds or possibly thousands of gallons of water that can cause additional damage. In contrast, an average home sprinkler discharges approximately 12 to 15 gallons per minute, and water damage is often contained in the room where the fire originated.

This reduction in property damage that fire sprinklers provide is often recognized by home insurance companies that provide a discount on the overall homeowner’s policy. The Insurance Services Office (ISO) also recognizes the value of adoption of the latest model codes, without amendment, as a measurable way to reduce community risk.


As communities face important decisions about going green and implementing programs that support environmental sustainability, there is evidence to support the fact that fire sprinklers enhance green initiatives in several aspects. Uncontrolled structure fires produce large amounts of toxic and greenhouse gases.

Upon arrival of the fire department, fires in unsprinklered buildings require significant amounts of water to extinguish, causing toxic runoff of contaminated water. Fire-damaged materials from the structure end up in a landfill, and new natural resources will have to be harvested to replace and rebuild what the fire has destroyed. All of these components have negative effects on the environment.

In comparison, a fire that is controlled through an automatic fire sprinkler system reduces many of these negative environmental impacts. A research report produced by FM Global provides a scientific analysis of sprinklers in reducing the negative environmental impacts and costs of structure fires.5

Economic costs are also associated with rebuilding structures damaged or lost to fire. NFPA estimates this cost at $18.6 billion annually. The FM Global report also found that using sprinkler systems in residential structures reduces the amount of water needed to control or extinguish a fire in a building by 50 percent.


Two important programs are under development that will help local governments implement voluntary or mandatory residential fire sprinkler programs. The first is an initiative by the National Association of State Fire Marshals ( to develop a training and education toolkit; this program is funded by a U.S. Department of Homeland Security fire prevention grant.

The second is a residential fire sprinkler contractor accreditation program being developed by the Center for Public Safety Excellence ( The underlying purpose of both programs is to help ensure that any residential sprinkler system is installed properly, by a competent contractor, and at the best price for the homeowner.


1 “National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control and the America Burning Report,” Learning Resource Center, Federal Emergency Management Agency,
2 Newport Partners, Home Fire Sprinkler Cost Assessment (Quincy, Mass.: Fire Protection Research Foundation, September 2008),
3 Saving Lives, Saving Money: Automatic Sprinklers: A 10-Year Study (Scottsdale, Ariz.: City of Scottsdale, Rural/Metro Fire Department, Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition, 1997).
4 Newport Partners, Incentives for the Use of Residential Fire Sprinkler Systems in U.S. Communities (Quincy, Mass.: Fire Protection Research Foundation, 2010).
5 Christopher J. Wieczorek, Benjamin Ditch, and Robert G. Bill Jr., Environmental Impact of Automatic Fire Sprinklers(Norwood, Mass.: FM Global Research Division, 2000),

Thomas Wieczorek is director, ICMA Center for Public Safety Management, Washington, D.C. (, and Alan Perdue is director of emergency services, Guilford County, North Carolina (

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