Cade: Save Responder Lives; Equip Homes with Sprinklers

April 8, 2008
United States Fire Administrator Greg Cade had one thing on his mind during his opening comments to the 200 graduates of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer program at the National Emergency Training Center in Emmitsburg, Md.: residential fire sprinkler systems.

“As the U.S. fire administrator, it is my job to direct programs implemented to reduce the loss of life and property due to fire and related emergencies, through leadership, advocacy, coordination and support,” said Cade. “In that role, I would like to address members of the Fire Service, homeowners, home builders, and other interested parties about the powerful protection from fire provided by residential fire sprinkler systems and why all homes should be equipped with them.”

Every day, said Cade, the U.S. Fire Administration collects news stories that deal with the tragic loss of life from fire in American homes. In January and February alone, over 300 people lost their lives in home fires. Commercial buildings such as schools, office buildings and factories have benefited from fire protection sprinkler systems for over a century.

“Although we protect our businesses from fire, what actions do we take to protect our families, our homes and our possessions from fire?” Cade asked, noting, “Millions of Americans have installed smoke alarms in their homes in the past few years, but a smoke alarm can only alert the occupants to a fire in the house. It cannot contain or extinguish a fire. Residential fire sprinkler systems can.”

In 2006, 19 percent of all reported fires occurred in one- and two-family structures, yet these fires caused 66 percent of the fire deaths in the United States. These means that approximately 2,100 people died in their own homes. In addition, approximately 25 firefighter deaths occur during responses to residential fires each year.

“Despite the fact that these statistics represent improvement over the last 30 years, they continue to be appalling,” said Cade, adding, “Such losses are unacceptable.”

Since the 1970’s, the U.S. Fire Administration has promoted research studies, development, testing, and demonstrations of residential fire sprinkler systems and smoke alarms. These efforts, in concert with efforts by many organizations and individuals, have resulted in the adoption of requirements to install smoke alarms in all new residential construction. In many jurisdictions, the retrofit of smoke alarms into existing residential occupancies has been mandated. Together, these initiatives have saved many lives, according to Cade.

Unfortunately, he added, the results have been different with respect to residential fire sprinkler systems. only a few jurisdictions have mandated their installation in new construction, and none have mandated retrofit of existing one- and two-family housing stock.

The Center for Fire Research at the National Institute of Standards and Technology has studied the impact of both smoke alarms and sprinklers in residential occupancies, and estimates that:

  • When fire sprinklers alone are installed in a residence, the chances of dying in a fire are reduced by 69 percent.
  • When smoke alarms alone are installed in a residence, a reduction in the death rate of 63 percent can be expected.
  • When both smoke alarms and fire sprinklers are present in a home, the risk of dying in a fire is reduced by 82 percent, when compared to a residence without either.

Current research shows that the available time to escape a flaming fire in a home has decreased significantly from 17 minutes in 1975 to only 3 minutes in 2003. This decrease in time to escape has been attributed to the difference in fire growth rates of home furnishings. According to Cade, a fire involving modern furnishings grows faster than a fire involving older furnishings. “The practical impact of this finding is clear,” he said, “smoke alarms alone may not provide a warning in time for occupants to escape a home fire.”

Experts at USFA reviewed the data and the relevant research and it is the agency’s official position that all homes should be equipped with smoke alarms and automatic fire sprinklers, and families should prepare and practice emergency escape plans. Further USFA “fully supports all efforts to reduce the tragic toll of fire losses in this nation by advocating these actions, including the proposed changes to the International Residential Code that would require automatic sprinklers in all new residential construction,” said Cade.

For more information on increasing the awareness of the benefits and availability of residential fire sprinkler systems, visit the USFA Web site at and the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition’s Web site at

About the Author

Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the former content director of EHS Today, and is currently the EHSQ content & community lead at Intelex Technologies Inc. She has written about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990.

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