ASK A FIREFIGHTER: Sprinklers can drastically cut the risk of death in home fires

ASK A FIREFIGHTER: Sprinklers can drastically cut the risk of death in home fires

The Westerly Sun

How effective and costly are residential fire sprinklers?

Fire kills more people in the United States each year than all other natural disasters combined. So far in 2018, home structure fires have been responsible for 564 civilian fire fatalities, including five Rhode Islanders and four Connecticut residents.  Fire prevention specialists suggest that home fire sprinklers are a crucial, lifesaving technology, but residents have many questions about their effectiveness and affordability.

In a home fire, research indicates that you have less than three minutes to escape.  According to the National Fire Protection Association, a civilian fire death occurred every two hours and 25 minutes in 2016, and a house fire was reported every 90 seconds.  When fire sprinklers are present, flames are often extinguished before the local fire department arrives.

The Rhode Island Sprinkler Coalition, chaired by the RI Association of Fire Chiefs, is an advocacy campaign focused on increasing the number of new homes protected by fire sprinklers. The coalition works in partnership with NFPA’s Fire Sprinkler Initiative, which offers free research, resources, and legislative support in an effort to convince the public that sprinklers should be installed in homes. NFPA has a blog that shares news and tactics for successful advocacy of sprinkler code adoption.

Sprinklers save lives and are considered the most effective fire safety devices ever invented. Smoke alarms reduce the risk of dying in a home fire by about one third, but the risk is drastically reduced by installing both sprinklers and smoke alarms. According to the NFPA report “U.S. Experience with Sprinklers,” the civilian death rate was 81 percent lower in homes with fire sprinklers than in homes without them. The report also states that the home fire death rate was 90 percent lower when both fire sprinklers and hardwired smoke alarms were present. 

Sprinklers can stop a fire in less than 90 seconds, and national fire reports show that their quick response design reduces damage to property and valuables. Sprinklers are designed to remain closed until needed. Each sprinkler protects an area and only the sprinkler nearest to the fire will activate, spraying water directly onto the fire.

Since all sprinklers do not activate at the same time, water damage is minimal compared with fire suppression actions performed by firefighters. A home fire sprinkler sprays about 20 gallons of water per minute, compared with 250 gallons per minute from firefighting hoses. If sprinklers are not present, fires typically burn until firefighters arrive and discharge a high volume of water at a high pressure. Without sprinklers, heat and smoke can damage furniture, furnishings, and heirlooms as they spread throughout the house.

Home sprinkler ordinances have been adopted by several hundred communities across the United States. Sprinklers are required in all new homes in California, Maryland, and the District of Columbia. Unfortunately, misinformation regarding the price of these systems has created a barrier to broader adoption. In reality, the cost of installing sprinklers in new construction is minimal and the cost continues to decrease.

NFPA attributes the declining cost to increased demand and cheaper materials. As a result, the design and installation of sprinklers, as well as the acquisition of permits and water meter fees, add only about 1.5 percent to the cost of a new home. This is an average of about $1.35 per square foot. Arguably, this is a low price to pay for peace of mind.

To put this into perspective, for the cost of upgrading your carpets or kitchen countertops, relatively maintenance-free sprinklers could be added to your home and potentially save lives. Think of it as investing in a full-time firefighter who stands at the ready 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, to protect your lives and property. 

For more information about residential fire sprinklers, please visit the RI Fire Chiefs website at NFPA captured on video a live burn in East Greenwich, R.I., that demonstrates how rapidly fire spreads in today’s homes and how quickly home fire sprinklers can extinguish fires. The video can be viewed at

This column was written by Jane Perkins, fire safety specialist for the Rhode Island Southern Firefighters League and captain of the Watch Hill Fire Department. If you would like to see a question answered in this column, please e-mail her at 



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