Life-saving sprinklers gain respect But builders complain that costs are too high

February 08, 1993|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Staff Writer

It was late, nearly 10 p.m. last June 26 when a 45-year-old Prince George's County man returned to his apartment in the Daniels Run complex in Adelphi.

Hungry and tired, he started fixing a late supper, then sat down on the living room couch while the food heated on the stove. Before long, fire officials said, he was sound asleep, and his meal was in flames. A smoke alarm sounded but did not wake him.

"If he was that sound asleep, and the fire had grown, it would have been tragic," said Prince George's County Fire Department spokesman Pete Piringer. Lives and property in the building's 47 other apartments also were threatened.

Instead, heat from the flames set off the fire sprinkler in the kitchen, extinguishing the fire.

Under 1988 state legislation passed to help reduce fire deaths in Maryland, all new dormitories, hotels, rooming houses and multifamily residential structures connected to public water supplies must be built with fire sprinklers. Last June, the mandate was extended to town house groups with three or more attached units.

Fire safety officials say the law already has saved dozens of lives and millions of dollars in property. But some homebuilders complain that sprinkler systems -- costing up to $3,000 per town house -- help make homeownership too expensive for many young couples.

No one, however, disputes the sprinklers' ability to save lives.

The man whose dinner burned at Daniels Run in June was awakened by a neighbor and walked out uninjured. By the time firefighters arrived, there was nothing to do but set up fans to blow smoke from the building. Even the cat survived.

"There was water damage, but my building was saved," said property manager Willa Mae Dupuis.

Prince George's County, a national leader on sprinkler legislation, now requires sprinklers in all new detached single-family and duplex homes as well. Just over 12,000 dwelling units in the county -- about 4 percent of the total -- now have sprinklers, including the Daniels Run apartments, built in 1989.

Today's systems bear little resemblance to the hanging pipes and bulky sprinkler heads seen in commercial and industrial properties since the 1800s. Now, the pipes are hidden in walls or ceilings. The sprinkler heads themselves are small, some the size of thimbles until they pop out and activate at 160 degrees.

Residential sprinklers react more quickly to heat than commercial systems. They douse fires before the flames rage out of control. They also use less water, 13 gallons per head per minute, which means reduced water damage. A normal fire hose uses 100 gallons per minute.

And, contrary to what many people believe, activation of one sprinkler head does not open all of them. Nearly two-thirds of all fires are controlled with just one head opening.

By catching fires while they are still small, sprinklers keep temperatures low and toxic smoke to a minimum. The flames are extinguished or slowed enough to give residents time to flee and firefighters time to reach the scene.

The International Association of Fire Chiefs has cataloged reports on 379 fires in the United States between 1983 and 1992, in which residential sprinkler systems were activated. Of those, 243 occurred in multifamily structures.

Despite the potential for well over 500 deaths in the 379 fires, there was only one actual fatality -- an 89-year-old man who died of burns sustained after his bedclothes caught fire. The sprinkler system in his apartment had an older, slower-reacting heat sensor.

Prince George's Fire Chief M. H. "Jim" Estep said, "There are at least nine lives we can say unequivocally have been saved as a result of sprinkler installations" since the county's law took effect in 1987. Mr. Estep is a national advocate for residential sprinklers. Like many Prince George's firefighters, he is buying a sprinkler-equipped home for himself.

Another 31 people in Prince George's County may owe their lives to residential sprinklers, he said. Only two people have been injured in fires where sprinklers activated. Fires that might have caused $8 million in property losses actually claimed just $81,000.

"We're real excited," said Mr. Piringer, the Fire Department spokesman. Residential sprinklers are "one of most innovative, progressive things the fire service has done in 100 years. Combined with a working smoke detector, the sprinkler system will increase survival by 85 percent."

Many recession-weary home builders, however, continue to argue that the sprinkler laws, combined with reforestation laws and other new regulatory demands on their industry, are pushing the costs of new housing out of reach of young Maryland homebuyers.

"There are clear benefits to having a sprinkler system in place. The question is, is it worth the additional cost," said George A. Shehan, president of American Landmark Homes Inc. in Harford County and past president of the Homebuilders Association of Maryland, which represents builders in the Baltimore area.

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