Safety Overhaul?

Experts Say Sprinklers Would Prevent Multiple Deaths in Fires, but They're Still Not Mandatory

June 19, 2007 —

As people in Charlotte, S.C., mourn the loss of nine of their firefighters in Monday's furniture store blaze, it turns out the warehouse did not have one of the most fundamental fire safety features ??? sprinklers.

And the Sofa Super Store where the fire occurred is hardly unique. According to a 2005 National Fire Protection Association study, only 26 percent of commercial businesses are sprinkler equipped. This is inexcusable, according to fire experts, who say nearly all burn deaths could be eliminated with the installation of this device.

"There's never been a multiple death fire in a properly installed and properly maintained fire sprinkler system," John Viniello of the National Fire Sprinkler Association told ABC's Jim Avila.

The National Fire Protection Association study also found that sprinklers reduce fire deaths by up to three-fourths, and property damage is reduced by as much as two-thirds when sprinklers are in place during a fire.

So, why do so many buildings, like the one that burned and killed nine Charlotte firefighters, not have sprinklers installed? Experts say it is because there is no national fire code requiring them in businesses, and state and local laws are inconsistent. When they do require sprinklers, it's often just for new construction, rarely requiring older buildings to retrofit.

"We should be sprinkling everything," said fire safety expert Phil Schaenman.

Minimal Cost Compared to Cost of Life

In the hotel industry, there has been good progress in this area ??? fire deaths killed many in the 1980s, but now hotel fires rarely kill, as the laws governing hotels require existing buildings to retrofit with sprinklers.

Still, across the nation, even in new construction, only 24 states have adopted and are enforcing the International Building Code that requires sprinklers.

And the trade organization that sells sprinklers insists they are not that expensive to install. "The cost of the system is so minimal compared to the cost of a life, and the tragedy that it causes as a result of unfriendly fire, it shouldn't be [an] issue of discussion," Viniello said.

Sprinklers cost about $1.50 a square foot to install, about the same as a good carpet. The Sprinkler Association said three properly installed sprinkler heads could have extinguished Monday's deadly fire before it killed nine firefighters.