Yesterday, in preparation for a Chicago Construction News feature related to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)’s Conference and Expo, I interviewed NFPA president Jim Pauley. He made convincing arguments for the long-standing NFPA call for residential sprinkler systems to be essential for new home construction.
I knew, of course, that not everyone agrees with this perspective. The argument presented some home builders, and reflected in a report by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp (CMHC), is that while there can be some lives saved and reduced fire damage, the yield in safety/life preservation doesn’t equate to the cost. CMHC says, for example, “the cost of saving one life would be $38 million.”
The argument: “How much is a life worth” of course can be contentious; but the case can be made that if $38 million in resources were allocated elsewhere for life-saving initiatives, there would be much greater return on investment.
These arguments don’t carry too much weight with the NFPA. Pauley suggests that if mandatory sprinkling was introduced, costs would decline as adoption increased and builders and manufacturers achieved experience and volume efficiencies. These cost-benefit debates have raged since the NFPA was established in 1886, when sprinklers were introduced for manufacturing plants. There were debates about mandatory smoke alarm installations; now these are considered standard (though of course smoke alarms are much less expensive than sprinklers, especially in colder climates where pipes can freeze in the winter.)
We see other debates raging and other controversies. Should high-rise wood buildings be allowed? Advocates for concrete/steel construction say “no” to the wood construction industry’s proposals, and cite the fire risk. NFPA takes a more nuanced stance — if proper fire prevention/safety measures are installed (such as sprinkler systems) then higher-rise wood construction can be quite safe. But what about the construction process — since especially recently, with the advent of major wood construction projects, there have been several disastrous wood fires in the building stages.? The industry needs codes and standards to deal with these safety challenges, NFPA believes.
And so it goes. Technology, innovation, controversy, and sometimes mixed messages shape perceptions and marketing messages. It isn’t a clean and clear picture. Conflicting interests have conflicting messages. If you install fire sprinkler systems, you would love them to be mandatory. If you are a home builder, you might say “no” concerned about the rising costs and consumer relucetance to pay for the added safety.
There is some good news in this conflict and sometimes chaos. Competing ideas need to fight for attention, recognition, and approval, and in the process, everyone needs to raise the bar and adapt marketing messages, academic research, and public and political persuasion techniques. There can be more than one right answer here.