Firefighters push to require sprinklers in new homes

CALEDONIA TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — With home fire deaths rising, local fire departments are joining a statewide effort to require homes to install automatic sprinklers.

The National Fire Sprinkler Association, working with the Caledonia Township Fire Department, held a demonstration Tuesday afternoon with a trailer that contained two living rooms, one with sprinklers and one without. Firefighters and battalion chiefs attended the event at Viking Group, a West Michigan-based company that makes sprinklers and valves for fire departments.

Fire sprinklers were installed in the first living room. When the fire broke out, the sprinklers quickly extinguished the fire, allowing firefighters to easily finish their work. The furniture and walls inside suffered minimal damage, apart from a few burn marks.

The second salon, which had no automatic sprinklers, was engulfed in massive flames. Black smoke billowed into the sky. Firefighters eventually extinguished the blaze with greater difficulty.

That’s why local fire departments and the National Fire Sprinkler Association are pushing to change the state building code to require automatic sprinklers in new homes, a debate that’s currently underway in Lansing. Homeowners oppose the measure on cost grounds, saying it would drive up home values.

“Most states are falling behind, and that’s wrong,” said Shane Ray, president of the National Fire Sprinkler Association. “When the fire problem is getting worse and elected and appointed officials are pushing us back because they don’t want to regulate, that’s not the place to be sacrificing ourselves.”

State Fire Marshal Kevin Sehlmeyer said 62 people have died in residential fires across Michigan this year, most of them starting in living rooms like the ones shown in the demonstration.

Caledonia Township Fire Chief Scott Siler says sprinklers can mean the difference between life and death.

“Think about it, if it’s your family,” Siler said. “Would you want them in your house to protect your family? Same thing with my firefighters. If they go out, I want them to be safe. If they don’t have to risk their lives to put out a fire that’s already been contained by a sprinkler, that’s great for us.”

Sehlmeyer said that in 2017, data showed that people had just three minutes to escape a house fire. Today, people have only two minutes, he said. That’s because there are more synthetic materials in homes.

“People don’t realize how quickly, with all the modern building solutions, bigger open spaces, all the textiles… everything breaks down faster,” Siler said.

“Our environment is becoming increasingly dangerous, so we need better response times,” Ray added. “We like to say that fire sprinklers buy time, and time buys lives. They buy time for a resident to escape and time for the fire department to arrive.”

Sehlmeyer said only 20% of fatal home fires this year had working smoke detectors inside. Many local departments, such as Caledonia Township, can install them in your home for free. Siler said residents can call the department to schedule an appointment.

“We had one fatal fire many years ago. There was one smoke alarm in the entire house and the battery had been taken out. People were dying from smoke inhalation,” Siler said. “They (smoke alarms) are very important. It’s something that can really give people early protection to get out.”