The four-alarm blaze that killed Worcester fire Lieutenant Jason Menard last week is prompting a fire safety organization to renew its call for installing more sprinkler systems in residences.
“If we really want to change the outcome of future fires, we need to start putting fire sprinklers in these buildings,” said David LaFond, the former Holyoke fire chief who’s currently a New England regional manager for the National Fire Sprinkler Association. “We can really mitigate the hazards.”
In prior eras, LaFond said, residents typically had 18 to 20 minutes to escape from their homes after a fire started. These days, he said, they may only have about three minutes to flee. He attributed that in part to the highly flammable plastic material in contemporary furnishings.
“It’s really dangerous,” LaFond said, noting that plastics cause the thick black smoke often seen billowing from engulfed homes. “That’s the couch. That’s what you’re looking at. . . . It’s really sad that the firefighters are suffering from these things.”
Menard died Nov. 13 while battling a four-alarm fire on Stockholm Street in Worcester. Officials credited him with helping two colleagues reach safety and desperately searching for anyone else trapped inside before the fire overwhelmed him. The cause of the blaze is under investigation.
“It’s obvious that if we want to protect firefighters, protect residents . . . we have to start putting the sprinklers in these buildings,” LaFond said.
State law spells out provisions for installing sprinklers in new residential units.
“In a city, town or district which accepts the provisions of this section,” a relevant statute says, new buildings “constructed or hereafter substantially rehabilitated so as to constitute the equivalent of new construction and occupied in whole or in part for residential purposes and containing not less than four dwelling units including, but not limited to, lodging houses, boarding houses, fraternity houses, dormitories, apartments, townhouses, condominiums, hotels, motels and group residences, shall be equipped with an approved system of automatic sprinklers in accordance with the provisions of the state building code.”
The rule did not apply to the three-decker that caught fire Wednesday at 7 Stockholm St. because that home was built in 1900, records show.
LaFond and Michael Young, former deputy chief of operations with the Plymouth Fire Department who also serves as a regional manager with the sprinkler association, said the home-building industry has aggressively lobbied against more stringent sprinkler rules.
“We’ve seen the intensity of fires increasing exponentially with the advent of lightweight construction, open floor plans, the amount of synthetic material used in both the furnishing and the accessories in homes,” Young said. “They burn with the same characteristics of gasoline.”
“Fire sprinklers can go a long way toward helping protect firefighters” from fatal burns, he said, and also from exposure to carcinogens linked to cancer, by “keeping fires small.”
But the National Association of Home Builders maintains on its website that sprinklers aren’t a cure-all.
“Home fires are tragic. But changing residential building codes to allow sprinklers won’t change that, because they apply only to new homes,” the association’s site says. “And that fact is that in the limited number of states where we have been able to match the age of the affected homes with standard national fire data, it’s clear that fatalities are concentrated in older homes. To reduce fatalities, we need to make older homes safer. That’s where working smoke alarms make a life-saving difference.”
The site contends that “studies that ‘prove’ reduction in property loss by 70 percent are inconsistent with established studies that indicate that in some cases, fire sprinklers increase property loss because of the significant water damage they can cause.”
State Fire Marshal Peter J. Ostroskey also voiced support for smoke alarms.
“Today’s house fires burn hotter and faster than ever before due to modern furnishings and construction techniques,” Ostroskey said in a statement. “When synthetics burn, they quickly produce toxic smoke leaving people with less than 3 minutes to escape the average unsprinklered home. Working smoke alarms and a home escape plan are key to survival.”