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Editor,—The recent article by Lynne Warda et al did a generally excellent job of reviewing the literature on prevention of fire injuries.1 Perhaps because the keywords did not include “sprinkler”,2 the report completely neglected the tremendous value of automatic fire sprinkler systems in preventing deaths and injuries in house fires. The National Institute of Standards and Technology estimates that while smoke detectors alone can reduce the fire death rate by 52%, sprinklers alone could reduce deaths by 69% and the combination by 82%.3
Sprinklers protect people without requiring human action after a fire starts, and therefore go a major step beyond smoke detectors. Detectors can alert people to a fire, but fail to protect anyone who cannot easily escape without help—children, the elderly, the disabled, the intoxicated4—the very people who are at greatest risk of dying once a fire is initiated. Detectors do nothing directly to prevent flashover and unacceptable heat, visibility, and toxic smoke conditions. In contrast, fire sprinklers are designed to effectively extinguish fires and to prevent these life threatening conditions.
Although the great majority of fire deaths occur in residential properties, no epidemiologic research on the impact of sprinklers on morbidity and mortality in private housing has been published. During the years 1985–91, the National Fire Incident Reporting System received reports of 5171 non-arson fires in homes with sprinklers and 126 240 non-arson fires in homes without sprinklers for the same fire departments. Preliminary results of research, which included validation of the outcomes and sprinkler status with the reporting fire departments, by Kay, one of the authors, indicate that the sprinklered homes had no fatal fires and 3.9 non-fatal injury fires per 1000 fires. In contrast, the non-sprinklered homes had 8.0 fatal fires and 36.7 non-fatal injury fires per 1000 fires.
In recent years, some jurisdictions in the United States have mandated sprinkler installation in new single family or multifamily housing. Yet many builders and homeowners are discouraged by myths and misconceptions, including a belief that sprinklers will “go off” by mistake and cause extensive water damage. In fact, sprinklers rarely activate accidentally and they sprinkle only rooms where there is fire. Not only do sprinklers improve life safety conditions by extinguishing a fire soon after onset, sprinkler discharges of 30 gallons/minute cause much less property damage than fire hoses at 300 plus gallons/minute.
Many people also think that sprinklers are too costly, but advances in quick response sprinkler technology have improved performance and reduced costs through the use of plastic pipe. The installation cost ($1–1.50 per ft2 of finished floor space) in a new house can be gradually recovered by reductions in insurance premiums.
Installation of automatic sprinkler systems in all new dwelling units and retrofitting in high hazard locations should be a high priority goal of the next decade.