The campaign theme for Fire Prevention Week, which started Sunday, is simple: “Look, Listen and Learn.”
The focus is on reducing the risk of fire-related injury or death through awareness and preparation. The theme breaks down into three parts: look for places in which a fire could start, listen for the sound of smoke alarms, and learn two ways out of each room in case a fire breaks out.
Fire Prevention Week always is the second week of October, in memory of the Great Chicago Fire, which started Oct. 8, 1871, and burned for 3 days. The horrific fire killed an estimated 300 people, destroyed about 17,400 buildings and left 100,000 residents homeless.
President Calvin Coolidge made the observance a national event in 1925, and firefighters take the opportunity to go into elementary schools and other public places to teach their communities about fire safety.
Something good came from the Great Chicago Fire – it created a sense of urgency to improve city building codes so fires couldn’t spread so quickly in the future. Building materials and standards would change dramatically, and the evolution of fire safety has brought us to sprinkler systems.
Sprinkler systems are required in many commercial buildings, depending on the type of occupancy and square footage. A few brave cities have residential sprinkler requirements in their ordinances, but those in the Sauk Valley are among the majority that do not.
Firefighters and insurance companies support the use of residential sprinklers, but the cost has made it an uphill climb. Homebuilders, the real estate industry and pro-business leaders don’t want to drive up building costs in their cities.
In November 2017, Rock Island passed an ordinance that requires residential sprinklers in new homes and in structures undergoing large-scale renovations. While detractors had predicted that the extra cost would be $4 a square foot, the actual cost has come in closer to $2 a square foot – about $4,000 for a 2,000-square-foot home.
That’s not exactly pocket change, but Sterling recently was reminded of the impact the sprinklers can have. Local firefighters, called to Lawrence Lofts for a water flow alarm on Sept. 13, found that a single sprinkler put out a fire in a fourth-floor apartment bathroom. If not for the sprinkler system, the fire could have swept through the 20 units on five floors. Many lives could have been lost, as well as the Whiteside County Courthouse’s Eastern Branch.
The National Fire Protection Association’s Fire Sprinkler Initiative is gaining momentum, but it’s a tough battle trying to reach everyone at the local level. The cost is a legitimate concern, but according to the NFPA, sprinklers can reduce the risk of death from home fires by 80 percent and property loss by 70 percent.
The day will come when sprinkler systems in homes are as common as smoke alarms, but with all of the politics involved, it might not be anytime soon.