Sher Grogg jokingly referred to her brother’s grand home along the water near Annapolis, Maryland as “the castle.” The 16,000 square foot new home in an exclusive community with vaulted ceilings and an expansive open-floor plan was the perfect place for family gatherings. But one night in January of 2015, the castle became an inferno that was reduced to smoldering ash when a Christmas tree caught fire. Despite many high-end amenities in the home, there were no residential sprinklers or working smoke alarms and no hydrants in the neighborhood. The prominent local couple and their four grandchildren perished.
“We let ignorance kill six members of our family,” Grogg told attendees at Leading and Living Life Safety Lessons Learned. The two-day summit hosted by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) was held just a few miles from where this tragic fire occurred. “I had no idea what flashover was. I had no idea how fast fire is,” Grogg said.
Few people – including law makers, the public and those opposed to mandating sprinklers in new construction –understand the devastation fire can cause in a matter of minutes. “What happened to Sher Grogg’s family is why the fire service must continue to lead the charge in educating the public about residential sprinklers,” said Chief Ron Siarnicki, executive director of the NFFF.
Currently, only Maryland and California have state-wide sprinkler mandates in new one and two-family homes. But a bill introduced in Maryland to repeal the law in 2016 may gain traction. If passed, other states could refrain from enacting sprinkler laws.
This exhibit shows the difference residential sprinklers could make in a house fire. The 50 sprinkler heads on the back panel represent a Maryland resident who died in a house fire in 2015, and those in the base represent deaths across the country.
Maryland State Fire Marshal Brian Geraci emphasized education as critical for helping local and state politicians, developers, builders and the public understand why sprinklers are imperative. Geraci believes hosting side-by-side burns to demonstrate how quickly fire spreads and how drastically fire dynamics have changed in modern homes is one of the most effective methods to reach all audiences.
“We get lots of attention from media and elected officials when we host a side-by-side burn,” Geraci explained. “It’s an opportunity to show why sprinklers are imperative, not only for residents but for our firefighters.”
One of the biggest arguments against sprinklers continues to be cost. Many opposed to sprinklers claim they’re an unreasonable expense. But, the average installation cost currently is $1.44 per square foot. For a 2,500 square foot house, that’s $3,600.
Geraci also sees an opportunity for the fire service to talk with real estate appraisers about offering credit for new homeowners who install sprinklers. “Homeowners get credit for upgraded counter tops, baths and cabinets, which are purely cosmetic. Why not sprinklers?” he said.
Dave Statter, a former TV news reporter and publisher of Statter911.com, encouraged attendees to find creative ways to break through the noise to reach the public with the truth. “Those opposing sprinklers have a lot of money that helps them reach politicians and the public with messages that aren’t always factual. You need to be blunt and let them know, among other things, that opposing sprinklers kills firefighters.”
The facts about the positive difference smoke alarms and sprinklers make are well-documented nation-wide. In 1992, Prince George’s County (MD) was one of the first jurisdictions in the country with a residential sprinkler law. According to Chief Marc Bashoor of the Prince George’s County Fire/Emergency Medical Services (EMS) Department, this has been extremely effective in reducing injuries and deaths.
“Since 1992, we’ve had more than 20,700 reported fires in the county. We’ve had zero fire-related deaths and 23 fire-related injuries in homes with sprinklers as opposed to 230 fire-related deaths and 621 fire-related injuries in homes without sprinklers.” The average property loss in homes with sprinklers in Prince George’s County is roughly $57,000 less than homes without sprinklers. “Clearly, sprinklers save lives and protect property,” Bashoor said.
Since 1985, Scottsdale, Arizona has required sprinklers in all new construction, including single-family homes. As a result, more than 90 percent of all fires in the city have been controlled by one or two sprinkler heads. This means more people escape safely, fewer firefighters are injured and property loss has been reduced by nearly a third.
This doesn’t mean firefighters are out of a job. According to Jim Ford, fire marshal of Scottsdale, the number of firefighter positions has nearly tripled over the past 25 years. “Firefighters are now battling all kinds of hazards, not just structure fires,” he said. “And we’re still responding to the same number of fires, but the property loss has decreased thanks to the effectiveness of sprinklers.”
Based on the information that was shared and the discussions that followed, the NFFF will develop a full report, as well as a document of talking points that advocates can use when meeting with government, code enforcement, and building representatives to encourage greater understanding on this issue.
“By enacting sprinkler laws, fewer families like Sher Grogg’s will have to endure the loss of family and friends, and our government officials and home builders will be credited for creating safer communities,” said Siarnicki.
Ultimately, the group believes creating partnerships with legislators, building industry groups and third-parties such as the American Red Cross will enhance community risk reduction efforts. The more information the public has at their fingertips, the better choices they will make.
As Sher Grogg put it, “Lives are worth more than the cost of installing sprinklers. I don’t want anyone else to endure what my family has gone through.”