During the past 13 months, Nova Scotian families have buried 12 young children who perished in house fires.
How many more youngsters will lose their lives before influential political and regulatory leaders take action?
Automatic fire sprinkler systems save lives, protect property and preserve the environment, and sprinklers likely would have saved those seven precious children — aged three months to 14 years — in Spryfield.
They should be mandatory in all new homes, including detached homes, duplexes and townhouses. Currently, Nova Scotia only requires sprinklers in care facilities and residential buildings four storeys and higher.
I didn’t always think this way. When I headed up the country’s two largest home builders’ associations, first in Toronto, then Vancouver, I opposed sprinklers, believing they imposed an unnecessary financial burden on home builders and their buyers, and that smoke alarms were the only life-safety device needed.
Well, I was wrong. Embarrassingly wrong, really.
My views on sprinklers changed markedly nearly six years ago when I joined the Dayspring and District Fire Department, participated in lots of hands-on training and became a firefighter and medical first responder.
Still a relatively raw rookie, I am truly in awe of my fellow firefighters’ skills, commitment and willingness to place themselves in harm’s way to help strangers. That’s a commitment most folks don’t fully understand.
Returning to the fire hall following a challenging structure fire can be a sombre experience. Invariably, the firefighters sit silent in the truck, exhausted, sweaty, dirty and covered with potentially deadly carcinogens.
Sadly, the cancer rate among firefighters is rising, and no wonder. Tests were conducted recently by U.S. university researchers on the condition of bunker gear (jackets, pants, flash hoods, gloves) following a fire.
Bunker gear worn by firefighters on the research scene had more than 440 times the contamination of the surrounding environment. Their gloves alone had 3,100 times the contamination of the environment.
Researchers recommended that firefighters remove bunker gear, thoroughly clean their faces, necks, hands and other exposed areas with de-contamination wipes, and put on fresh gear before getting back in the truck to return to the station. They said all structure fire calls should be considered hazardous materials scenes.
According to a 2018 study by the University of the Fraser Valley (UFV) in B.C. – co-authored by Surrey Fire Chief and UFV adjunct professor Len Garis – 50 Canadian firefighters out of 100,000 die of occupational cancer each year. A comprehensive review of health data suggests the likely cause is exposure to carcinogens.
A home protected by a fire sprinkler system is like having a firefighter already on scene, knocking down the fire, before the first pumper truck and suppression crew have left the station. Typical response time is roughly 10 minutes, whereas a single sprinkler head can extinguish a fire in under 90 seconds – saving lives and property, and reducing firefighters’ and residents’ exposure to carcinogenic noxious smoke, gases and fumes.
Moreover, National Fire Protection Association research underscores how fire sprinklers can reduce the risk of death or injury from fire. The study found the civilian death rate was 81 percent lower in homes protected by sprinklers than in homes without them, that the average firefighter injury rate was nearly 80 per cent lower, and fires were contained to the room of origin 97 percent of the time when sprinklers were present.
It’s important to note that only the sprinkler head closest to the fire activates, not the entire system.
During the past couple decades, there has been a sea change in the way homes are built. Yes, they include more energy-efficient and maintenance-free features, and desirable design elements and creature comforts, but the homes – and the furnishings – contain many synthetic materials, plastics, vinyls, glues, resins and laminates. All that material ignites easily, burns quickly and produces those aforementioned carcinogens.
And homes in today’s small-lot subdivisions are sited closely together. Flames can jump from one structure to the next. During the tragic Spryfield fire, vinyl siding on the adjacent homes was melted, but firefighters protected those homes by flowing steady streams of water onto them.
Twenty years ago, flashover — a condition where a fire’s energy is suddenly radiated back to a room’s contents to produce a rapid rise in temperature and simultaneous ignition — occurred in about 21 minutes.
In today’s new homes, flashover can occur in under three minutes. And loss of life can happen well before the flashover stage in a fire’s progression.
Builder groups continue to oppose making sprinklers mandatory in new homes three storeys and under.
They say “home buyers aren’t asking for sprinklers, and until they do, we won’t offer them” and “the cost-benefit numbers don’t add up.”
I can recite those and other arguments chapter and verse, because for years I voiced similar concerns.
We live in a technology-laden era. It seems every day the world is introduced to something new, super efficient, more convenient, or way cooler than yesterday. Tomorrow, today’s technology will be yesterday’s news.
Yet a system designed to save lives and protect property, and whose technology, appearance and performance are continually refined, still has its naysayers.
Here’s what I’m thinking. It would be wonderful if just one prominent Nova Scotia builder stepped up and announced, “I’m going to install automatic sprinkler systems in all my new single-detached homes.”
Brazilian hardwood floors, crown mouldings, Shaker-style cabinets and solid-surface countertops are great enticements to home buyers, all combining to produce a wide-eyed wow factor, but they can’t save lives.
Depending on room layout and other considerations, a sprinkler system for a 1,300 sq. ft. subdivision home in HRM would cost no more than installing quality solid-surface (eg, granite) countertops in that home.
Just as that one builder needs to be a champion for sprinklers, lawmakers need to be life-safety champions in the Nova Scotia Legislature, and in city and town municipal halls throughout the province.
And home buyers need to start asking new-home salespeople, “how will our family be protected from fire in these homes?” Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are essential, but they won’t extinguish a sudden blaze.
It’s true builders are burdened by a range of development charges, levies, fees and taxes imposed by all levels of government. Those governments can help to mitigate or neutralize the added cost of sprinkler systems by identifying efficiencies in development and building requirements, and by eliminating outdated regulation.
A provincial home builder association leader was recently quoted in the Chronicle Herald as saying “we have to get our ducks in a row before we go half-cocked and make sprinklers mandatory.”
Fowl and gun references notwithstanding, many folks have for decades tried to line up the ducks, and every time it gets close to a straight row, someone knocks the ducks off the table and sweeps them under the rug.
Please, no more talk. No more stalling. No more deflections. It’s time for hard decisions on fire safety.
Peter Simpson is a veteran journalist and former CEO who now lives in Nova Scotia. His latest column, Here’s What I’m Thinking, which chronicles provocative random thoughts on a broad spectrum of topics, appears monthly.