Below is a “letter to the editor” from Tom Harnsberger (retired fire chief and current treasurer for the Carroll Fire Protection District) in response to the Champaign house fire that killed two individuals on the eve of Easter:
Grief pours out for the tragic loss of the young lives of Christian Sheehan and Sara Shuler — young lives cut short by the ravages of fire. Friends and family will question why. They will always wonder what the two may have accomplished with their lives. Parents are missing their children; and the children will miss their parents.
According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), “residential” was the leading property type for fire deaths (75.7 percent, or 2,274 people), fire injuries (79.1 percent) and fire dollar loss (52.2 percent or $6.1 billion) in 2011.
Recent testing by Underwriters’ Labs (UL) comparing fires in legacy houses versus lightweight construction show that newer homes with newer furnishings (padded with foams made from oil) burn much much faster than homes built with dimensional lumber and containing older furnishings (padded with common combustibles). The legacy home tests show that after a wastebasket is set on fire, occupants have over 26 minutes to escape until conditions are not survivable. In the newer home, after the same size fire is started, conditions are not survivable within six minutes.
There is technology that limits the fire, usually to the object where the fire started, and prevents toxic gases from becoming a problem. At Carroll Fire Protection District, we have built a real estate tax rebate program in which the fire protection district will rebate up to 25 percent of the real estate tax received from a property owner that installs an automatic fire sprinkler system in a one- or two-family housing. If all homes had automatic fire sprinklers, the fire deaths in homes would dramatically drop and the fire loss of $6.1 billion also would drop. In addition, most homeowner insurance companies offer discounts to policy-owners that have an automatic fire sprinkler system.
The benefits of having an automatic fire sprinkler system are not solely financial. If fire sprinklers were present, Mr. Sheehan and Ms. Shuler would most likely still be alive and well with their futures fully ahead of them. Their parents would still have their children, their children would still have their parents.