April 20, 2017 Decatur, Illinois
DECATUR – To some of the people witnessing the two fires that were intentionally set in a hotel parking lot, it was a dramatic demonstration of the effectiveness of fire sprinklers.
But for David Bartley, a maintenance electrician for the Housing Authority of Champaign County, it was much more than that.
“In 2005, I lost my house to a fire, an electrical fire in my son’s bedroom,” said Bartley, who was on site as a conference attendee. “I ran upstairs with a five-pound fire extinguisher. When I opened the door, it ignited a flashback. It knocked me down on my back.”
The residents of Bartley’s century-old house in Villa Grove, seven children and three adults, all made it to safety, but Bartley said he has been troubled all these years by the idea that he might have been able to save his house by discharging the fire extinguisher.
But after seeing the demonstration of two makeshift bedrooms set on fire by the Northern Illinois Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board, Bartley said he has a brand-new perspective on the fire that occurred the day after Christmas, more than 11 years ago.
“After witnessing that, my five-pound fire extinguisher would have been like spitting on a bonfire,” Bartley said. “For me, it gave me peace of mind that I did the right thing for my family.”
The main point of the demonstration Thursday afternoon was that sprinkler technology is readily available and works flawlessly, said Bob Wetzel, fire safety compliance manager for the State Fire Marshal’s office.
Wetzel, a retired 26-year Decatur firefighter, was at the Decatur Conference Center & Hotel to teach fire safety at a maintenance and management conference of the Illinois Association of Housing Authorities. The conference, held annually in the city, drew 290 people from 70 housing authorities.
Wetzel invited Tom Lia, executive director of the sprinkler advisory board, to orchestrate the side-by-side burn for conference attendees. The demonstration showed the difference between a room with a sprinkler, which was automatically extinguished shortly after its ignition, and an unprotected room, which quickly exploded into raging blaze and required firefighters to extinguish it.
“This gave people an opportunity to see firsthand what the danger of a fire is like, when they see the power of the fire and the amount of heat it generates,” said Wetzel, whose duties include regulation of fire sprinkler contractors. “Imagine if that was in a 12,000-square-foot house.”
The advisory board, which travels throughout the state promoting sprinkler systems, performed 54 side-by-side demonstations last year.
One challenge standing in the way of fire safety is a hodgepodge of building codes, some of which allow construction without sprinklers.
There are 3,500 separate building codes in Illinois, each for different jurisdictions,” Wetzel said. “Each one can pick and choose the different codes they want.”