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Sprinklers: like having a firefighter on duty

by: Vern Uyetake, Ed Smith of Lake Oswego installed sprinklers in his garage because he has restricted access for a fire truck on his narrow driveway. Smith says he sees the importance in having the system because fires can strike at any time. But, Lake Oswego fire marsall Phil Sample said that only 200 houses in Lake Oswego have indoor residential sprinklers.

Lake Oswego fire marshal Phil Sample thinks residential indoor sprinklers are a very good idea.

In fact, he thinks they're a life-saving idea.

'Statistics show that 3,000 people die in residential fires a year in the United States,' Sample said. 'That's amazing. We have the technology to fix it.'

So why do so few people have them?

Well, Sample is working on answering that question. For his entire career in the Lake Oswego Fire Department he worked, on both a state and local level, to expand ordinances requiring residential sprinklers.

However, Sample has faced some tough obstacles. Even in Lake Oswego, a city with many expensive homes with up-to-date features, there are only 200 residential houses with indoor sprinklers.

'I've been trying to promote them for 30 years,' Sample said. 'I look at the new technology, yet we do business in the same old way.

'Eighty percent of the people who die in fires are dying in their homes. We could make a significant dent in the number of residential fire deaths. Maybe even eliminate it.'

Yet when it comes to putting sprinklers inside their homes, the public is stubbornly resistant. The main reason is simple: cost.

'It's another bureaucratic burden for the homebuilder,' Sample said. 'It's just a fact that the National Homebuilders Association opposes indoor sprinklers, and the primary reason is affordability. It's one more expense.

'People also worry that an indoor sprinkler system might malfunction and flood their homes.'

Sample compares the opposition now facing residential indoor sprinklers to the opposition faced by seat belts. To illustrate this, with tongue inserted deeply in cheek, he composed an essay entitled, 'Why I'm Opposed To Seat Belts.'

In it, Sample reels off reasons that seem ludicrous in retrospect: Too much cost added to cars, thus crushing affordable travel; financial ruin of the American economy; seat belts are ugly, etc.

The concluding line of the piece is, 'He doesn't understand the motives of those who oppose home, baseball, mother, apple pie, seat belts or residential fire sprinklers.'

A little humor can help make a point. But Sample's big information about costs, safety and technology are what he counts on most in his effort.

'The cost of an indoor sprinkler system is 1 to 1 ½ percent of a home,' Sample said. 'Most will spend more on a carpet upgrade. Many people put in lawn sprinklers that costs the same amount.

'Once people start putting them in, the cost will go down even more. I'm trying to make them so affordable that you can't afford to not have one.

'There's a 98-percent success rate on commercial sprinkling systems. They hold fires to very minimum damage, and the few defeats result from lack of maintenance.

'The thing is, commercial sprinklers are darn near 100-percent effective. They're like having a firefighter on duty in every room, 24/7.'

While Sample has been frustrated to not see a surge in purchases of residential sprinklers, some homeowners are getting the message.

Ed Smith of Lake Oswego installed sprinklers in his garage, but it wasn't to get on Sample's bandwagon.

'To be very honest, I have restricted access for fire support,' Smith said. 'Without putting in sprinklers I couldn't have met codes. There weren't many options for me.'

But now that he has them, Smith says he now knows why residential sprinklers are a good idea. In fact, he is even having them placed in the new home he is building.

'Now that I have indoor sprinklers, I've read more about them and I understand why we should have them,' Smith said. 'House fires can sneak up on you without you even knowing about it.'

The cost of the indoor sprinklers was not cheap. Smith estimated it to be $14,000. But he thinks it was money well spent.

'Once you have an indoor sprinkler in, it's a real asset. They pay for themselves in time. You make nice savings on insurance.'

Smith does not believe residential sprinklers are for everybody.

'I would not say, 'Yes, everyone across the board should do it,' ' he said. 'I would base my recommendation on two things. One, your concern for your family. Two, the value of your home.'

Sample has his victories over residential sprinklers. He has seen the Lake Oswego City Council resolve to request permission of the state to require indoor sprinklers for new buildings.

Several years ago, Sample authored a grant that acquired the funding to install sprinkler systems in 21 senior living facilities in Lake Oswego.

Just last week, representing all of Oregon's fire marshals and fire chiefs, Sample went to Salem to testify before the Building Codes Division about the necessity of requiring indoor sprinklers in homes. He was happy to see that the National Builders Association did not express overt opposition to his proposals.

'It was about fire protection in the community,' Sample said. 'Indoor sprinklers are one of the most effective life-saving methods.'

Effective action can't happen too soon for Sample.

'What has been the fire history in Lake Oswego?' he asked. 'Fire affects the most vulnerable, the very young and senior citizens.

'Firefighters are also handicapped because homes are more hazardous. Firefighters take all kinds of risks to make a rescue. Homes have much more lightweight construction. They've gotten away from using heavy timbers, and if there's a fire in a basement the floor will collapse in five or six minutes. That's our arrival time.'

Overall, Sample says, 'I've been amazed at how slow it's been.'

But as for the future of residential sprinkling systems, he believes it's a lock.

'Some day, maybe 10 years from now, indoor sprinklers will be like seat belts,' Sample said. 'Everyone will have them. We are going to win this battle.'