Should fire sprinklers be required in new homes?

9:35 AM, May 2, 2012   |    comments
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MADISON LAKE, Minn. - Some women have a thing for jewelry. Kathy Lamont treasures her 13 smoke detectors. You would too if you were in Kathy's shoes.

Kathy used to have two sons: Kole and Kyle. That changed nine years ago this month.

"I knew at that moment that Kole didn't make it out," Lamont recalls about the night she was summoned from work to find her house in flames and only one of her boys outside.

Kyle Reichel, now 21, remembers awaking to a smoke filled house and grabbing his younger brother by the hand. The brothers were on their way from their basement bedroom to a walk-out basement door when Kyle says he tripped and let go of Kole's hand. "I thought 'Oh yeah, he'll follow me out, he's right behind me.' And I got out and he never came out."

He is left with a nagging question: "What I could have done different to get him out goes through my head a lot," he says. 

Which brings us to a broader question: should we all be doing something different?

"I think sprinklers would have saved my son. I definitely think so," says Lamont.

St. Paul Fire investigator Jamie Novak is a believer in sprinklers too. So much so that he offered to build KARE 11 two identical 8x10 rooms.

"This could be a bedroom, living room," he explains as he works alongside a fire department carpenter.

The rooms are identical, but for one piece: a sprinkler head poking through the ceiling of one of the rooms.

It's peace of mind Cary and Susan Bergstrom know well having installed fire sprinklers while they were rebuilding after an electrical fire gutted their Maple Grove home.

Why spend the extra $4,000 those sprinklers cost the Bergstroms? Because Susan wasn't moving back into the family home without them.

"It was do this or move," says her husband. Susan adds, "I didn't feel safe anymore."

The Bergstroms installed their sprinklers voluntarily but last year the organization that sets the nation's standardized building codes began recommending sprinklers in all newly constructed homes.

Two states - California and Maryland - were quick to adopt mandatory sprinklers codes.

While 13 others did the opposite, passing laws that forbid mandatory sprinklers - in some cases, even if towns and cities vote to require them.

Minnesota lawmakers passed a ban too last year before a veto by Governor Dayton.

"This is just one of those items that adds to the cost of the home without reasonable need," argues contractor Todd Bjerstedt, a member of the Builders Association of Minnesota - a leader in the fight against mandatory sprinklers.

The fight returned to the Minnesota legislature this session as the builders and like-minded lawmakers again sought to prevent mandatory sprinkler rules from being adopted by the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry. The ban cleared committees in both the house and senate and now awaits a floor vote in both houses.

The builders consider residential sprinklers expensive and unnecessary. According to statistics compiled by the organization just six fire deaths have happened the past dozen years in Minnesota's newest homes - those built in the 90s and the 2000s.

Thirty people have died in homes built in 70s and 80s, while 46 people have died in fires in homes built and the 50s and 60s.

The builders say that's proof developments like hard-wired smoke detectors and egress windows have made newer homes safer.

"We do an incredible job of getting people out of the home so it begs the question, why add another layer of protection?" says Bjerstedt.

But why concede any lives, firefighters ask, when technology exists to save them?

It's technology Jamie Novak prepares to put to the test in those two identical rooms furnished by the St. Paul Fire Department and equipped with monitors for oxygen, carbon monoxide and heat.

Roughly one minute after fires are intentionally ignited in waste baskets in each room smoke detectors begin sounding.

At two minutes the fires begin spreading to upholstered chairs in each room.

At three minutes, both fires are producing ceiling temperatures approaching 155 degrees, which happens to be the temperature at which the red liquid inside the thin glass bulb of the sprinkler head is designed to expand to the breaking point.

The sprinkler head makes an audible pop as it activates and water rains down. Temperatures and carbon monoxide levels plummet in the sprinkled room as the fire rages next door.

At four minutes the fire in the sprinkled room is all but extinguished while a toxic mix of gas and flames sends temperatures in the unsprinkled room to 1700 degrees Fahrenheit.

"Go ahead and put it out," shouts Novak to the firefighters who've been watching the fires with their hoses ready.

The difference is dramatic. Damage in the sprinkled room is limited to the chair and the carpet beneath it. The unsprinkled room is destroyed.

Firefighters raise additional concerns. They say modern building materials are more flammable putting firefighters at risk when they must enter burning homes.

St. Paul fire Chief Tim Butler says a fire in today's new homes "burns hotter, it burns faster, it causes collapses much more easily."

Builders say a sprinkler law could price some potential homeowners out of the market, quoting prices as high as $12,000 dollars to put sprinklers in an average size home.

Firefighters insist the builders vastly overestimate the cost of sprinklers. They say sprinklers can be installed in new residential construction for as little as $4000 the amount the Bergstroms spent on their sprinklers.

"What kills me is when people will spend money to sprinkle their yard or put in a fireplace but they won't even consider putting a sprinkler system that will save their house and their life and their family possessions," says Novak.

Cost was a factor when Kathy Lamont rebuilt after her son's death.  There are no sprinklers and lots of smoke detectors.  She is, however, quick to acknowledge she would probably do it differently if she were building today.

"I think sprinklers are a great thing," she says.

The technology is ready but the debate is still simmering.

(Copyright 2012 by KARE. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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