The purpose of this study is to analyze data from fatal fires in one- and two-family residences occurring in New York State from 2000 through 2006. This will help identify factors to conclude if the proposed mandate to install fire sprinkler systems in newly constructed homes is the best course of action to reduce fire deaths.
Most of the data was acquired through the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) process from the State of New York Department of State’s Office of Fire Prevention and Control’s (OFPC’s) Fire Reporting Unit. Information provided had been submitted to OFPC in varying levels of completeness by a variety of local government and firefighting sources subsequent to fatal fires. Some additional house age data was compiled through HomeInfoMax, an online realty site.
An Excel spreadsheet was developed compiling the following information: name of the volunteer fire department on call at the fire, number of deaths, year home was built and home address. A summation of total deaths and the average age of the dwelling were calculated for the seven year data period.
There were 495 fatalities at 389 locations in New York in the subject period. Complete data was available for 123 sites (31.6%) which in all probability represent a statistically significant sample from which to draw sufficient preliminary conclusions. Notably, the sample shows that the homes in which a fatal fire occurred were constructed, on average, in 1940. Since improved building practices can result in safer homes, and evolving building codes take into account and reflect some of these practices, the ages of the subject homes provide a particularly important area of analysis. One of the most significant fire-related changes in building codes was the mandating of smoke detecting alarm devices in New York’s new home construction in 1984, which is referenced below as an important milestone in the data reviewed. This was strengthened in 1995 when hard-wired alarms with battery back-up became mandatory for all new homes.
Out of the sample homes having fatal fires, 106 or 86.2% were constructed prior to 1984, before New York’s smoke detecting alarm mandate. There were 139 individuals who lost their lives in these fires, representing 88.5% of the deaths included in the sample. A total of 23 incidents of multiple fatalities occurred in this group. Multiple deaths happened only once in the sample homes built after 1984. The sample includes only eleven fatalities in homes built in the ten year period between 1997 and 2006. Obviously, every death is heartbreaking but this information may indicate that a level of safety has been achieved in newer homes that would minimize the value of fire sprinkler systems when all factors are considered.
The data described above shows a dramatic difference between older and newer homes. It is clear that new homes have built-in precautions that are saving lives.
Fatalities, injuries and destruction resulting from residential fires are terribly tragic but preventable. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security highlights the seriousness of home fires by citing that in 2002 there were 401,000 residential fires throughout the United States, resulting in 2,695 civilian fire deaths, 14,050 civilian injuries and over $6 billion in property damage. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, a fire occurs in a residential structure every 79 seconds. The question addressed here is whether mandating residential sprinkler systems in new homes is the best way to reduce fire deaths.
Following continuously improved electrical wiring codes, it is commonly accepted that the mandate requiring smoke detecting alarm installations in new homes had a dramatic and very positive influence on diminishing fire fatalities. For a relatively small investment and with proper maintenance, primarily installing fresh batteries on a regular basis for portable units, these alarms have been very successful. They have proven their worth thousands of times over. The majority of fatal fires in New York between 2000 and 2006 were in homes built prior to smoke detecting alarm requirements. Additional deaths could have been avoided if residents maintained their existing smoke detecting alarms, a low-cost, low-impact safety practice.
Mandating sprinkler systems, however, would substantially affect housing prices with a median installation cost of about $6,000. As difficult as it is to confront, it is a fact that not every available safety feature can be made affordable and be absorbed in the cost of a product. Decisions are made every day by individuals weighing the risks of injury or death when buying automobiles, for instance. Pricing items out of the market, including homes, would have a dramatic effect on the economy, workforce and quality of life.
In addition to the installation costs, annual sprinkler maintenance and testing expenses are in the hundreds of dollars. Can most homeowners be counted on to consistently schedule and afford these services? Necessary repairs can vary greatly and technicians and parts are expensive. Costly system malfunctions can result in damages to furniture, floor coverings, appliances, clothing and other components. Also, introducing a new source of potentially damaging moisture into each home could be disastrous, especially with today’s tighter, more energy-efficient homes. Two other factors to be considered are the potential for freezing and bursting pipes and the viability and costs associated with ensuring sufficient pump pressure and stand-by water in well systems. Due to these manifold serious concerns, it should be a homebuyer’s option to determine if a sprinkler system is viable for their circumstances after receipt of all of the facts and descriptions of all possible consequences.
There have been suggestions that homeowner insurance discounts given for the existence of sprinkler systems will contribute greatly to paying down the cost of the systems. A recent thorough National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) report detailed findings regarding discounts, their amounts, sprinkler system costs and the payback time required to recoup investments in them. According to the NAHB, the median cost of a new home in New York in 2007 is $305,803 and the median annual cost of insurance for that home is $630. The average discount for having a Class A sprinkler system, weighted by insurance provider, is 11%. This represents an annual savings of $69.30 per year in New York. With the median cost for a sprinkler system, associated fees and other installation costs calculated to be $5,573, the payback from insurance discounts for the system would be over 80 years, not a good investment by any means. If the sprinkler system’s cost is included in a typically brokered purchase and financed mortgage, the payback for the system could climb to almost 100 years. And since insurance companies usually have a total cap of about 20% for discounts related to safety devices (e.g., deadbolt locks, burglar alarms and smoke detectors), given the large number of such features in many homes, the actual impact on the insurance payment could be very small or zero, greatly lengthening the payback period or making it incalculable.
In conclusion, residential fire sprinkler systems are not economically viable and there is little proof that they reduce the risk of dying in a house fire. The need to mandate sprinklers in new one- or two-family homes has never been justified. Residential fire incidents, injuries and deaths continue to decline as newer housing stock increases its percentage of the whole. Advances in construction practices and materials, the effectiveness of smoke detecting alarms, and fire prevention and education efforts are working well. Mandating and installing smoke detecting alarms continues to be a more practical, cost effective and proven way to reduce fire casualties in the United States.
According to the Michigan Association of Homebuilders, new homes are safer than ever. Fire protection codes seek to reduce the number of casualties and home damage due to a fire. These codes include fire separation, fire blocking and draft stopping, emergency escape and rescue openings, electrical circuit breakers, capacity and outlet spacing and reduced need for space heaters in energy efficient homes. The majority of fatal fires are in older, substandard homes that do not contain the significant improvements in fire safety features of homes built to current code standards. Older homes can have building materials, space heaters, faulty wiring or other characteristics that might lead to a greater risk of a fire starting along with structural inadequacy or lesser ease of exit.
Smoke detecting alarms, along with fire safety education, play a major role in saving lives. They also save money. Per the United States Fire Administration, the average cost for interconnected, hard-wired smoke detecting alarms with battery backup is $50.00 per station. On the other hand, residential fire sprinkler systems in New York may cost many thousands of dollars and push hundreds of thousands of would-be homeowners out of the housing market due to this additional financial burden. The latest NAHB figures show that for every $1,000 increase in the nationwide average cost of a new home, over 217,000 potential homebuyers are priced out of the market because they can no longer afford or qualify for a mortgage. Fallout from the sub-prime mortgage crisis will most certainly increase this number. A sprinkler system mandate would seem to contradict goals of increased affordable home ownership by New Yorkers.
The recommendation yielded from this study is in support of the continued use of smoke detecting alarms, and education of the public on their maintenance, along with vigilant existing code compliance, as the best courses of action to reduce fatal fires in New York State’s new one- and two-family homes. Data included in this study show that the average home in which a fire fatality occurred was built in 1940. These homes probably did not have operational smoke detecting alarms and were not built to today’s standards. Mandating residential fire sprinklers in homes in New York State is not an economically sound idea, there are operational shortcomings, they have not been proven to vastly save more lives and their costs will create barriers to entry level homebuyers.