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Our view: Firefighters continue push for sprinkler systems in residences

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 three 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 visit 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 changed 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 most do not.

Firefighters and insurance companies support the use of residential sprinklers, but the cost has made it an uphill climb.

In November 2017, Rock Island passed an ordinance that requires residential sprinklers in new homes and in structures undergoing large-scale renovations. While detractors 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 the property damage and loss of life that sprinklers can prevent more than justifies the cost.

DeKalb city officials showed a commitment to this concept in May, when they voted to require Northern Illinois University Greek organizations to install sprinklers in their houses by the end of 2019, while offering loans to cover up to 80 percent of the costs from the city’s water fund.

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 concern, but according to the NFPA, sprinklers can reduce the risk of death from house 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.

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