Firefighter: Sprinklers can save lives in fast-moving house fires

May 18, 2023

LAKEVILLE — Two minutes.

In that short amount of time, a single flame on a curtain can explode into a blaze that fills a room with fire and reaches “flashover’’ stage, when all combustible substances ignite and survival chances are virtually non-existent, Firefighter Lt. Ryan Silvia said during a recent demonstration at Lakeville Fire headquarters.

That’s a quarter of the typical response time _ eight minutes _ from the fire department. 

House fire deaths are on the increase, Silva said, even as there are fewer house fires overall.

From 1980 to 2021, house fires in the United States have decreased in number by 66 percent, according to National Fire Protection Association statistics. 

But in that same period, house fire deaths increased by 13 percent.

The reasons are numerous,  Silva said.

Furniture once made with natural materials is now often filled with synthetics that are more combustible. Homes today tend to be larger and built with more lightweight construction materials. 

And with open layouts a popular choice in home design, there are often fewer walls in homes, which provides less opportunity to shut off specific areas and contain flames. 

But there is something homeowners can do to improve their chances of survival, Silva said.

Install sprinklers.

Silvia urged homeowners and builders to consider installing sprinklers when building homes. 

Sprinklers, he explained, play a different role than smoke detectors, which he stressed are also important.

Smoke detectors serve as a crucial, and potentially life-saving, alert to residents to exit the dwelling.

But they do not extinguish a fire. Sprinklers do.

To illustrate the point, he showed a video that showed how quickly a flame on a curtain can spread to the “flashover’’ stage, when survival is impossible for someone without protective equipment. 

Without sprinklers, the fire spread quickly, hitting flashover within two minutes.

In a room with sprinklers, the water is activated within moments, keeping the fire to the room of origin and allowing people in other rooms to escape safely. “Nobody is dying in this fire,’’ he said.

During the presentation, Silvia debunked what he described as myths about sprinklers. 

He said the water damage caused by sprinklers is far less than what the firefighters would spray through hoses to extinguish a raging blaze.

Sprinklers, which are installed from ceilings, tend not to be obvious in the room’s design. And sprinklers can be ordered that sit virtually flush with the ceiling, making them essentially unnoticeable, he said.

And leaks, which he said people often express concerns about, are less common than in “your regular house plumbing,’’ he said.

Unlike some parts of the country, Massachusetts does not require home sprinkler systems.

And Silvia acknowledged they are not without cost. He cited estimates that adding sprinklers to a new construction adds about 1 percent to the cost. Retrofitting current homes is more costly, he said.

But to Silvia, no price tag can be placed on the potential life that is saved.

“To me, that 1 percent is a pretty good investment,’’ he said.