Fire Sprinkler System Investment: $1,000 saves $600,000

Fire Sprinkler System is a good investment for this family.

Originally, the homeowner didn’t want the sprinklers. Now they are so thankful they had them.

At approximately 12:50 PM on Tuesday July1, 2014, the Prescott Fire and Medical Department responded to a reported structure fire, with “flames and smoke showing” from the garage, at a home located at 605 Robin Drive in The Crossings subdivision on the north side of Prescott.

A full structure fire assignment, fire trucks, chiefs, ambulances, police officers, all responded. On arrival, the first due Engine Company reported that the fire was out and there were no injuries. All other responding units went available and returned to quarters.

How did “flames and smoke showing” end up as “the fire was out” before we even got there? The answer lies in an eight dollar fire sprinkler head. “I think that every house should have sprinklers.”, said Leslie McDonald, who owns the home with her husband Jim. I asked Leslie and Jim if I could use their experience with a fire and a home equipped with a residential fire sprinkler system and received an emphatic “yes” from both of them. Why would they be so willing say “yes”? The answer may be in the fact that a fire in their garage, that neither of them knew about, Leslie in the house and Jim in the back yard, was extinguished by a single fire sprinkler head before Leslie could get her garden hose turned on.

“I was in the house and heard a loud bang.” “I thought Jim had just put something up against the wall outside.” It wasn’t Jim. The next thing Leslie knew was that her neighbor, Rick Sprain, was banging on her door telling her that her house was on fire. As Leslie ran outside, she saw smoke and flames coming out of her open garage door. In the garage, a classic car, an SUV, a motorcycle, and other garage typical items, including many of Jim’s radio controlled airplanes, barely visible now through the smoke. As Leslie turned on her garden hose to try to put the fire out, what she saw was black smoke turn to white, flames that were approaching the ceiling were now down to the floor and almost non-existent, and a bell started to ring. That bell, which Jim still didn’t hear in the back yard, was the sign the sprinkler system had been activated and water was flowing.

“Thank God the fire sprinklers worked” said Leslie. I asked what she thought when they built their home and were told that they needed to install fire sprinklers. “The first thing I thought was that I was going to have to cut some upgrades to pay for the eight thousand dollar system”. She was very pragmatic about the decision though, “We wanted our house set back further from the street. That decision meant that we had to install sprinkler, but that’s what we wanted”. Looking at the tens of thousands of dollars of items in the garage that were completely undamaged, with only a charred work bench and water on the garage floor, the McDonalds were easily able to do the math: their eight thousand dollar system had saved 10, 20, 80 times that amount. Estimated loss from the fire was $1000 with what was saved estimated to be over $600,000 in the building and its contents. Not a bad return on their investment.

A common misconception about residential fire sprinklers was stated by Jim; “I thought all the sprinkler heads went off at once.” He was obviously quite happy about the fact that his system operated as it was designed, as they are all designed, so that only the number of heads that need to spray water in order to control the fire will go off. In Jim and Leslie’s case, one sprinkler head, flowing 13 gallons of water per minute, was all that it took to keep what could have been a tremendous loss down to a work bench and some batteries.

Another thing the McDonald’s didn’t know when they were required to install sprinklers: 8 out of 10 fire deaths occur in the home. The combination of working smoke alarms and home fire sprinklers reduces the likelihood of death from fire by more than 80 percent- smoke alarms alone- 50 percent. Smoke alarms let you know there is a fire but they do nothing to extinguish the fire.

The cause of the fire was determined to be overheated batteries that were being charged on the work bench. Jim told investigators that he had just plugged in some batteries that operate his radio controlled airplanes before going in the back yard to do some work. “I’ve had friends that this has happened to”. One of his friends had even lost a vehicle when the batteries that he was charging using the cigarette lighter plug caught fire and destroyed the car.

As a firefighter, I’ve seen so many families sorting through what was left of their lives and belongings after a fire. No matter how many times you witness that ceremony, it always makes you sad. They pack what they can salvage to move to a hotel, or a friend’s house, for however long it takes to rebuild their homes and lives. It doesn’t take a life loss to adversely affect those who have gone through a fire. There is significant pain and suffering when only property is lost. The property is their lives, their parents, grandparents, and children’s memories; things that cannot be replaced. Not this time. It was a great feeling to see the last little bit of water being swept out of the garage, as Jim offered us some cold water out of the fridge in his garage, the one that wasn’t damaged, before going into his undamaged home to continue his day.

How Jim will charge his batteries in the future is yet to be determined, but he did know that his fire sprinkler system needed to put back in service as soon as possible. It was, before fire personnel left the scene.

Originally published in the Prescott News on 7/9/2014 by Don Devendorf

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