Primer on Adopting Sprinkler Ordinances
This primer summarizes what fire chiefs have learned about enhancing your chance of success when you propose a sprinkler ordinance. In it you will find solid proposals that help win adoption. It also includes advice on traps to avoid as you go through the process. Our goal is to equip you with the knowledge that others have gained through experience some of it painful so that you will succeed.
The path to adopting a sprinkler ordinance is challenging. Expect some form of resistance. Just convincing people that they are at risk from fires can be frustrating, and selling them on sprinklers even more frustrating. The process can take much more time than you realize. Many fire officials have taken on these challenges and won, but many others have failed. This primer contains tips for avoiding the traps and making your initiative a success.
The Residential Fire Safety Institute (RFSI)
The RFSI, formerly known as Operation Life Safety (OLS), is an outgrowth of Operation San Francisco, the name given to a series of tests conducted in 1983 of the then new residential sprinkler technology. The U. S. Fire Administration teamed up with the Marriott Corporation, the International Association of Fire Chiefs and the sprinkler industry to do full scale tests in a San Francisco hotel that was scheduled for demolition. The tests confirmed the effectiveness of residential sprinklers in saving lives and property, and the group created OLS to educate the fire service about residential sprinklers. The name changed from OLS to the Residential Fire Safety Institute and aligned itself with the National Association of State Fire Marshals in 1999. When a fire official decides to promote a sprinkler ordinance, the RFSI can send a representative to assist. The RFSI is still a public/private partnership, and is funded by the U. S. Fire Administration and private industry.
Assisting fire officials with implementing fire sprinkler programs is central to the RFSI mission. The RFSI consults with fire officials on strategic planning, provides educational workshops and assists with presentations to policy makers. The RFSI maintains a database of sprinkler ordinances in the US and Canada, which gives fire officials a wealth of information on the language and scope of existing ordinances. For more information about these services, see the contact information at the end of this document. (top)
Announcing plans to adopt a sprinkler ordinance before thoroughly reviewing your strengths and weaknesses is like jumping into the ocean and ignoring the shark warnings. Some of the hazards that await are not obvious, so fire officials who assess all potential hazards are more likely to emerge from the process with all their limbs intact.
The RFSI has resources to assist fire officials with their strategic assessment. One is a checklist that identifies potential issues that may derail your planned ordinance, e. g., the reaction from your own fire department members. The checklist was compiled from fire officials experiences with sprinkler ordinance initiatives and thus offers valuable insight. The RFSI executive director is also available to assist, either by phone or on-site.
The earlier that strategic planning takes place the better. It certainly needs to occur before any public announcements, and it is advantageous to do it before too much informal discussion takes place. The reason is that other public officials, even in the fire department, may be ambivalent or even opposed to sprinklers. Successful fire officials began by reviewing potential problems and devising ways to address them before wading into the surf. If a fire officials fire department is focused on operations (where the You light em, we fight em attitude prevails), he or she definitely needs to do some groundwork before going public. (top)
Don't get locked in by selecting the method of adoption before you consider all alternatives. In one city where a high-rise fire claimed several lives, the city council asked the fire chief to propose a solution. He immediately recommended that they adopt an appendix chapter of their fire code that covered high-rise retrofits. When the council met to consider the proposal, a council member noticed that the appendix required all retrofits to be completed within 18 months after it was adopted. He attacked its impracticality, asking how building owners could possibly get financing, let alone enough sprinkler contractors, to comply in that short time. The ordinance failed and the fire department has not brought up the subject again.
Another fire official took a neighbors ordinance and submitted it for adoption. The ordinance contained retrofit provisions, and the city happened to own a lot of high-rise buildings that would be effected. The public housing authority cited a lack of funds and spoke against the ordinance. It failed.
Another problem is conflicting language in other codes or even different sections of the same code. Many fire officials have gotten sprinkler ordinances adopted only to see builders legally circumvent the requirements. An example is area separation walls. Building codes state that structures separated by area separation walls are considered to be separate buildings. To circumvent the sprinkler requirements, a builder can add separation walls and thus add unlimited additions to a structure without ever exceeding the sprinkler ordinances area threshold.
Fire officials need to address conflicts like this in their ordinances. It the case of separation wall language, fire officials can add a clause saying that, for the purpose of applying the sprinkler requirements, area or separation walls will not be recognized. The RFSI sprinkler database contains ordinances with this language.
Fire officials have a range of alternatives, some obvious and some not. Should they amend the building code or fire code? Perhaps a standalone ordinance would be best. Should retrofit be addressed? If so, what occupancies should be covered and what thresholds used? What about a zoning ordinance? Each alternative has merits and demerits, depending upon local and state conditions. For example, what works in one state may not work in a state that has a mini-max building code. A fire official who wants retrofit provisions must consider how palatable they will be to the policy makers. The RFSI sprinkler ordinance database contains examples of these options, and they are available upon request. Also, the RFSI executive director can provide background from jurisdictions that have used the different alternatives. (top)
A well-planned program takes a minimum of several months to execute. Even a year's time is not unusual. There are occasions where a fire loss stirs a community to action and the chief can push a sprinkler ordinance through. But this is the exception, not the rule. In most cases where fire officials moved quickly to adopt ordinances, they have either failed or created backlashes that damaged their credibility. When this happens it becomes all the more difficult to start another sprinkler initiative.
One reason for taking sufficient time is the needed to educate. Education is a critical element in the process, but it takes time and patience. Also, it is more effective when done in stages. An example is educating policy makers. In some cases, fire officials have successfully combined educational sessions and ordinance adoptions on the same agenda, but those cases are the exception. The more successful approach is to do separate educational sessions. Also, the session should be scheduled long enough before a voting session so that the fire official can respond to the inevitable questions that will come up. (top)
Resistance comes from two sources, one that is obvious and one that many fire officials don't expect. Different tactics are needed to overcome each one. The first source is opponents to sprinklers like home builders and developers. These groups have historically resisted any additional requirements on home construction, and they can be counted on to protest. However, the objections are always the same, so fire officials can anticipate the questions and misinformation that will come. The trick is to review all of the expected issues, apply them to local conditions and be prepared with answers. When a home builder remarks that "new homes are safer than old ones," it impresses policy makers a lot more if the fire official responds with a factual answer instead of a puzzled look.
The second source of resistance comes from friends. It is "sales resistance," and it affects everyone from policy makers to the public. A lot of fire officials are not prepared for it, thinking that a simple explanation of the problem and solution will suffice. But most people are unfamiliar with all fire sprinklers, let alone residential, and unfamiliarity breeds sales resistance.
Marketing experts know that a customer's sales resistance is highest to a new product. Thus, they direct their marketing efforts for new products at building awareness because familiarity with an item lowers sales resistance. Since fire sprinklers are "new" to so many people, fire officials need to make education the first step in the ordinance adoption process and continue educating throughout. If this is neglected, the effort will probably fail.
One key to the education effort is reaching a wide audience. Fire officials must educate policy makers for sure but should not overlook other groups like realtors. Their primary professional contacts are bankers and builders. If builders are their only source of information on sprinklers, they will spread the misinformation they get from them. Fire officials need to counter this by reaching everyone in the housing loop. Other potential audiences are mortgage bankers, property insurers and civic organizations. Opinion leaders in the community belong to civic organizations, and visiting those groups to talk about the fire problem and the sprinkler solution is a good way to attack myths and build community support.
It is also worthwhile to approach the home builders associations, too. This can be done by being a guest at an association meeting or inviting builders to a public meeting on the ordinance. Meeting with them gives the fire official two advantages. First, it can make them understand the fire problem. Just like most civilians, builders do not understand how quickly fires grow. Their opposition will be less strident if they appreciate the power of fire. Second, they will give the fire official a preview of their positions and arguments. This gives the fire official time to research the issues and be ready with effective responses when the ordinance is heard.
Meeting with home builders can also win advocates. As more builders recognize the security value of fire sprinklers, they are more likely to change their stance. They know that security sells in today's market, and more builders now see sprinklers as an asset that can set their homes apart from their competitors. A home builder in Texas is pre-piping his homes in the event that buyers want to install sprinklers. (top)
Nothing dooms an ordinance quicker than unanticipated bad news. Take the fire official who discovers the following: the water purveyor wants a separate water line for the sprinkler system and will charge home owners commercial rates for the larger meter. Together, these will add a lot to the cost of installing sprinklers. These problems can be dealt with, but not if discovered at a city council during debate about the proposed ordinance. When these problems surface at the last minute, two things are very likely to happen. First, it hands policy makers who oppose or are ambivalent an excuse to reject it. Second, it makes the fire official look unprepared, and that damages his or her credibility.
Problems like these will be identified in the strategic planning stage. Fire officials need to anticipate all potential downsides like water charges and plan review fees that might cause policy makers to reject an ordinance proposal. It might require that the process be held up while the fire official works to remove these obstacles. A delayed ordinance is better than none at all. Resources like the RFSI checklist will help fire officials identify these problems so they don't get blindsided by them. (top)
Opponents of sprinklers can easily rankle fire officials. In their zeal to make a point or defend their position, they have been known to overstate things. They often pass along misinformation - perhaps unknowingly - that they get from other sources. It is easy to fall into the trap of an "us against them" mentality and become argumentative. The first rule in these situations is to remain composed and refrain from negative comments. The next rule is to consider the opponent's arguments as "sales resistance" that you can overcome with information.
Take an opponent who states at a city council meeting that "older homes are the problem because they have old electrical systems." An effective response is a friendly reply like "That seems to make sense on the surface, but fire loss data show that this is not the case. Electrical fires account for less than 10 percent of fire causes. Human behavior, (e. g., arson, misuse of smoking materials, cooking and children playing with matches) accounts for over 80 percent, making electrical fires a minor factor."
Any response that says or implies that the opponent is a liar will not go over. Keep in mind that in most cases opponents have not confirmed whether their statements are factual, they just pass along what they heard. Patience, a positive demeanor and solid facts will win out. (top)
Fire officials are tempted to fill a presentation or report with national fire loss statistics. It seems like a logical thing to do. After all, they point out the gravity of the residential fire problem. However, the purpose of the report is to convince policy makers that there is a fire problem in their jurisdiction. If national statistics dominate the report, the effort can actually backfire. People interpret what they see or hear in terms of their own experience. When they read a statement that there is a house fire every minute in the U. S., they unconsciously check that against where they live. Before they will accept the fact that they have a fire problem and it needs to be remedied with sprinklers, they must be able to apply the facts to their jurisdiction. If any national or regional data is used to make a point, the fire official needs to show how they relate to local conditions.
Relating national data to a local situation is not always easy because the frequency of dwelling fires probably won't equal what happens on a nationwide average. The national data include urban areas, where a significant portion of dwelling fires occur. If the community in question is a suburb of upper middle class homes, there will be no comparison. This is the type of situation where citing national averages can backfire. The person hearing the statement that an average of 12 people die in dwelling fires every day will ask privately how many die locally. If the answer is "not many," the listener might question the fire officials credibility. In the least, the listener will not be convinced that there is a local problem.
Home builders will argue that communities with low fire death rates do not need sprinklers (the RFSI calls this the "Where's the bodies" argument). This does not mean that communities with low fire death rates will be unsuccessful in adopting sprinkler ordinances. Dwelling fires are a reasonably expected event in every community. And even though a serious fire may be a low probability event, it is a high-consequence event. Fire officials can effectively state the case that "It will happen eventually. When it happens, do we want to save lives or not?" They can convince policy makers of the need by driving home the power and swiftness of dwelling fires and the life-saving ability of residential sprinklers. The specifics of how to do this are discussed in a following section.
When the RFSI executive director makes a presentation at policy maker groups, for example a city council work session, he uses a set of 15 slides that include a review of a local fire. The point is to get them focused on the inevitability of residential fires where they live. The slide set is available on Powerpoint, so you can customize with your own information. (top)
The key part of getting a sprinkler ordinance adopted is explaining why you want it in the first place. Policy makers tend to think in terms of problems and solutions, so it helps to present your justification in that way. There are plenty of reasons to want sprinklers in some new structures, all new structures, or both new and existing structures. Here are samples of them:
Do not underestimate the importance of describing the problem and solution in a way that policy makers and the public will understand. Policy makers won't approve an ordinance if they are not convinced that there is a problem. The public will ignore the issue if they don't appreciate the value of sprinklers. And when policy makers sense that the public does not care about an issue - well, you know the rest.
It takes more than a recitation of fire loss statistics to sway policy makers. In fact, convincing people that there is a fire problem can be difficult and even frustrating. It can leave the fire official feeling that people are apathetic about fire risk. They aren't, though. People make rational decisions about their fire risk based on what they know. To understand this, compare your experience with what the average citizen knows about fire.
For fire officials, fire is an everyday occurrence. They live with it, they study it. The memory of tragic fire losses is burned into their memories. The average person, however, may never have seen a fire truck on their street in their lifetime. Their lack of personal experience with fire leads them to underestimate the danger. They do not realize how little time it needs to kill. To boot, their perceptions are colored by fictional portrayals on television and in movies. Thus, there is a large gap between a fire official's perception and that of the general public. Policy makers by and large are no better informed than anyone else.
Many fire officials are used to being recognized by policy makers as the authority on fire safety whose opinion is good enough. But when facing opposition, policy makers are skeptical and less prone to accept the fire official's word. They want proof that a problem exists and that sprinklers are the best way to address the problem. So if fire loss statistics won't work, what will? (top)
The first step is to establish the reality of the threat. A good way to do this is by showing the impact of flashover and the speed with which fires can reach flashover. Resources like the RFSI video use live demonstrations to depict what happens to people id dwelling fires. Flashover is the critical point because of its impact on victims and fire suppression resources. Fire loss data show that post-flashover fires increase the risk to people outside the room of origin by a factor of eight.
Stopping a fire before flashover, then, dramatically reduces the threat to occupants in other parts of the dwelling. Victims in the room of origin are affected about half way to flashover because this is when the temperature, smoke and carbon monoxide make the room untenable to life. Residential sprinklers stop the fire before it makes the room untenable to life, so they dramatically increase the chances of survival in the room of origin as well.
When describing how residential sprinklers are so effective at stopping flashover, reinforce the fact that before residential sprinklers, flashover and the ensuing life and property loss were mostly unavoidable, an acceptable loss if you will. With residential sprinklers, we don't have to accept that anymore. (top)
If the fire official can cite recent fires as examples, all the better. Fire modeling programs can be used to augment fire incident reports. They allow fire officials to recreate actual fires on a computer, creating scenarios with and without sprinklers. In the unsprinklered scenario, the printout will describe the deteriorating room conditions as the fire grows to flashover. This reinforces the reality of the threat and documents the short time to flashover. By adding a sprinklered scenario, Fire officials can show how sprinklers would have changed the outcome.
When people see that the air temperature in the room of origin reaches over 600F at the ceiling and exceeds 150F at the breathing level (the point where you cannot breath) in just over two minutes, they begin to understand the reality of fire. When they learn that the sprinkler would have operated within 60 seconds when the ceiling temperature was only 200F and the air still cool enough to breath, they begin to understand the life-saving power of sprinklers. The RFSI slide set for policy makers uses modeling to compare a local fire where no sprinklers were present with a model of what the outcome would have been had sprinklers been installed. The RFSI can assist you with doing a computer simulation of a fire that occurred in your community.
After illustrating the threat of flashover, the next step is to explain why the fire department cannot equal the capability of sprinklers. The fire official can do this by documenting the manual suppression needs in different occupancies, and then describing the fire department's manual suppression capability. Once the fire official identifies the kinds of structures where the risk exceeds capability, he or she has the rationale for requiring sprinklers in them.
Describing suppression capability and structural fire risk requires quantitative measures. For the most part, however, the fire service has not progressed beyond annual fire loss data. The days when a fire official could tell policy makers that "I'm the authority on fire safety and it is my opinion that this is needed" are over. Quantifying fire risk and suppression capability will be new to most fire officials, making them uncomfortable with the prospect. However, the task is not as hard as it appears. (top)
The task appears difficult because fires seem like a moving target. Who has not heard the old saw that "No two fires are the same?" It is true that the risk posed by a structure changes by day and time of day. For example, a fully occupied building poses a greater risk than an empty one, but the same building can have both attributes depending upon the time of day. The time delay between ignition and reporting changes the risk. A fire that is quickly reported poses less risk than the same fire if reporting is delayed.
There are a lot of other reasons why risk varies. However, fires are comparable because they all go through the same stages of growth. The way around the barrier of risk variation is to describe fires at the same stage of growth. Enter flashover again. The policy makers should already be convinced of the impact of flashover on victims. Now it can be used to explain the impact on fire department resources. (top)
Manually-suppressed fires require about twice the number of firefighters and apparatus than sprinkler-suppressed fires. Depending upon the scope of the ordinance, the fire official will need to describe the varying suppression requirements in the different occupancies. Fire department deployment studies describe the risk categories for different structures, and the RFSI has examples. A typical study will use five risk categories: minimum, low, moderate, high and maximum.
The categories of structural fire risk are defined in terms of the demand that a pre-flashover fire places on fire suppression crews, in other words the minimum number of firefighters and apparatus needed to stop a pre-flashover fire. For example, a single-family detached dwelling requires a minimum of 12 firefighters, three apparatus and a supervisor to handle a working fire with a reasonable degree of safety. The RFSI has examples for each risk level, as well as the maximum response times deemed adequate to get the firefighters to the fire scene.
The fire official's immediate reaction to this might be to say, "Why be so restrictive? After all, many fire departments simply are not staffed and equipped to stop fires at the pre-flashover stage." The RFSI reply is, "Every fire department can stop a fire at the pre-flashover stage - if sprinklers are installed." There is no valid reason for setting fire suppression goals at anything less than stopping loss before flashover. (top)
One measure that is popular with fire officials nearly always overstates a fire departments capability - the distance from the nearest fire station. This measure would be fine if just one station could supply enough resources to stop a structure fire, but very few fire departments have enough resources at one station for even a house. (Some volunteer departments operate from a single station but may have the disadvantage of longer travel times and extended turnout times).
The fact is that it usually takes at least two or more stations to supply the minimum resources. Fire officials who use the distance from the nearest station to determine the need for sprinklers are leading policy makers to expect more from the fire department than it can deliver. In addition, homes that should have sprinklers will be exempted.
Doing time:distance models for multi-station response may sound hopelessly complex, but PC computer versions are available for around $500.00. Smaller jurisdictions can do the calculations by hand. The RFSI can supply the formulas and methodology.
To help fire officials justify their measures of suppression capability, the RFSI uses the concept of critical fireground tasks. Those are the tasks that must be performed simultaneously or in a highly coordinated manner. For example, the two firefighters on the attack line cannot enter a structure until other firefighters are ready to ventilate. Two standby firefighters must be ready to enter if the attack line firefighters are overcome. A water supply must be established to continue the flow once the engines tank empties. Adding up the number of firefighters required to perform these and the other critical tasks yields the minimum number of firefighters and apparatus that must be on the scene. (top)
More than one fire official has won an ordinance and declared victory, only to see it rescinded or made less restrictive. One reason for this is because they didnt count on some critical issues that can give opponents ammunition to kill the ordinance. The RFSI has identified four factors that can result in losing an ordinance after it was adopted. They are backlash from opponents, lack of preparation to handle plan review and inspection, unresolved issues (e. g., backflow prevention), and failure to educate owners.
Backlash is likely because some opponents dont give up lightly. They will manufacture problems with the ordinance or blow up small problems in order to get policy makers to reconsider. If the fire and building departments arent prepared to enforce the ordinance, criticism will mount as home owners are not able to get timely inspections completed. If controversy breaks out over unresolved issues such as backflow prevention or meter size, the fire official will hand opponents the ammunition they are looking for.
The two problems are related. If the fire department is prepared to handle the workload and if all the ducks are lined up, fire officials can prepare for both problems.
Failure to educate the people who will be protected will also open the door to backlash. If home owners do not appreciate the value of sprinklers, they are more likely to do things that will result in problems. An example is going on vacation and turning the heat down low enough to freeze a part of the system, or uncovering insulation in the attic and exposing lines to the cold. When designing an information program for home owners, remember that people move. The education plan should include a way to monitor home sales so you can send your educational material to the new owner. (top)
As they prepare their sprinkler ordinances, fire officials can benefit from the experience of others to spot the landmines and craft effective ordinance language. The tips discussed here illustrate what can be gained by seeking help at the beginning, and what can be lost if ignored. Opponents to sprinklers often have political clout and are usually well-organized. It is difficult enough to convince policy makers when there is no opposition. With opposition, the task becomes even more daunting. The RFSI is one of the resources that can help with strategic planning, education, and the technical issues surrounding implementation. Contact RFSI for technical assistance: email@example.com. (top)
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