Born in fire: Scottsdale’s revolutionary fire sprinkler ordinance continues to save lives

America was ablaze in the early 1970s and it had nothing to do with the politics of the Watergate Scandal or the Vietnam War.

America was literally burning — commercial and residential fires were epidemic, costing up to 8,000 lives annually and millions of dollars in property damage.

Jim Ford

A special presidential commission confronted the crisis in 1973. It issued a report called “America Burning,” which called for new strategies to both prevent and fight fires.

One of the readers of that study was Jim Ford, who was fresh out of Paradise Valley High School and a part-time firefighter for the Rural/Metro Fire Department. The report would not only influence his career, it would place him on the forefront of a revolution.

It began in 1975. Scottsdale was booming, congested and emerging as an urban jobs center. The city council passed an ordinance requiring fire suppression sprinklers in buildings over 7,500 square feet or with heights above three stories.

“Scottsdale’s policy makers understood that if you were building large structures in this community then you were adding risk to the community,” Mr. Ford said. “Sprinklers were a way to reduce that risk and protect our community investment.”

An audacious plan

The track record for automatic sprinklers was impressive, based on Rural/Metro’s local experience and reports from the National Fire Protection Association. Backed by that data, Rural/Metro Fire Chief Lou Witzeman took an audacious step in 1982.

He worked with an assortment of federal agencies and insurance companies to convince Womack Homes to put sprinklers in two residential models that were going up in Scottsdale.

Mr. Witzman’s plan was to set fire to those sprinklered model homes. Mr. Ford, who had become a full-time fire captain, was manning the hoses that day.

“Lou pulled me aside and said ‘Jim, your job is make sure those fires go out,’” Mr. Ford said. “‘If those sprinklers don’t work I have to buy those houses … so you guys better be good today.’”

The sprinklers worked perfectly. Mr. Witzeman kept his money. And the smoke bellowing from the extinguished model homes that day signaled the next phase of revolution.

Data again pointed the way. Four out of five people dying in fires were in residential properties. Residential fires also represented about 70 percent of total property loss in the U.S.

“As an industry, the U.S. fire service wasn’t doing enough to solve the residential fire problem,” Mr. Ford said. “Nor was it addressing the most effective way to reduce firefighter injuries and deaths. We needed to look at all of that.”

The city council put together a committee that included Rural/Metro chiefs Bob Edwards and Frank Hodges, the city’s building and water departments, local developers and insurance companies. Their charge was to find a practical way to sprinkler residential homes.

“There is a lot of talk today about coalitions and whether they work or not,” Mr. Ford said. “Well, it worked back then. People were more willing to sit down and argue and talk and come back with a better method — and they did.”

To offset higher building costs, the committee proposed easing some design requirements for developers. The proposals included increasing the space between hydrants, reducing the size of subdivision water mains and shrinking the width of some streets.

(File photo)

Scottsdale leads the way

After more than three years of meetings, debate and compromises, the city council approved a proposal in 1985 that made Scottsdale the first city in the U.S. with a mandatory residential sprinkler ordinance for new structures.

The move drew national headlines and heated commentary. The National Fire Protection Association hailed it as a “watershed event in fire prevention.” Most developers, however, detested the move.

They believed it added cost to their projects and placed Scottsdale at a competitive disadvantage over other communities.

Detractors persisted, calling the ordinance costly and overly bureaucratic. Developers lobbied the city council and legislature to overturn it. There was annual debate over whether residential sprinklers were needed or effective.

“We were so far out on a limb that people were bailing out,” Mr. Ford said. ‘Fire chiefs who were trying to do the right thing were going to their councils and just getting killed by innuendo and misinformation.”

Were residential sprinklers a wise investment or an over-hyped boondoggle? Scottsdale had to find the answer.

Mr. Ford would again play a pivotal role in the debate. Fourteen years after the model home demonstration and a decade after the Scottsdale ordinance adoption, he was tasked to compile a report to lay out the facts.

Personally, Mr. Ford didn’t need a study to know the value of residential sprinklers.

“I’d been on the trucks. I’d been on the calls,” he said. “I knew the difference residential sprinklers and built-in fire protection was making in our community”

He recounted one incident in a sprinklered home where a sleeping man was doused with gasoline and lit on fire by a roommate.

“That’s a fatality anywhere else in the country except Scottsdale,” Mr. Ford said. “The sprinkler system put him out and saved his life. He didn’t even spend the night in an emergency room.”

In the first 10 years of data analyzed by Mr. Ford, no death was reported by fire in a sprinklered building. At least 13 people were saved by sprinklers in the first 15 years of the ordinance who otherwise would have died in fires.

During that same timeframe, 13 people did die in Scottsdale fires — all were in non-sprinkled residential properties.

Property savings were also significant. The average fire loss per sprinklered building was $2,166. The average fire loss per non-sprinklered incident was $45,019.

Since the ordinance adoption, Scottsdale’s total fire loss has been consistently about one-third of other comparable communities.

Mr. Ford’s study was published by the National Fire Protection Association, the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition and other professional groups. It validated the risk Scottsdale leaders took in 1985 by passing the sprinkler ordinance.

The bottom-line findings were impossible to argue — lives spared, millions in property damage saved and substantially less infrastructure cost to Scottsdale taxpayers.

Mr. Ford, already a passionate advocate of residential sprinklers, became an international spokesperson for the city’s approach to community risk reduction. He would travel to symposiums throughout North America, Europe and other locations spreading the “Scottsdale Way” of fire prevention.

“We are a big city and we get looked at and studied all the time,” Mr. Ford, who today is Scottsdale’s deputy fire chief and fire marshal. “People come to look at us and they look at what we do and what we don’t do and I’m able to say without a doubt that (residential sprinklers) make a huge difference in how our community is protected.”

The impact continues

From banning billboards to building the Indian Bend Wash Greenbelt, Scottsdale has a long history of innovation. Its early embrace of fire sprinklers, however, may be one of its most significant achievements.

After all, how do you place a value on the dozens of lives that have been saved by sprinklers in Scottsdale?

Just ask Geraldine Griffiths, manager of a Scottsdale residential care home that experienced an electrical fire in March 2018. Eight residents, several wheel-chair bound, were in the home. Sprinklers controlled the blaze before firefighters arrived to extinguish it and help with evacuations.

“In my opinion, with the fuel load in that house we would have definitely lost almost the entire structure and most likely would have had fire fatalities … if it was not for that sprinkler system” Mr. Ford said.

As it was, Ms. Griffiths said many of the residents weren’t even aware of the fire as they were being evacuated. And because of the limited damage, residents were back home after only three days.

“I want to thank all the people who pushed this project to have fire sprinklers in the house,” Ms. Griffiths said. “I just couldn’t image without the sprinklers what would have happened in this care home.”

Attempts to roll back residential sprinkler requirements still continue. A bill forbidding cities from enacting such ordinances was defeated in the current legislative session.

Scottsdale’s elected officials have continued to hold steadfast, refusing to reduce or remove the requirement for residential sprinklers in new structures.

“One of the great characteristics of this community is its ability to look ahead and to do the right thing instead of just the easy thing,” Scottsdale Mayor Jim Lane said.

“Our residential fire sprinkler ordinance is an example of that. We stayed focused on the facts and the facts say this system works. It saves lives and property. That’s a blessing for this community and a testament to Scottsdale’s ability to lead.”

Editor’s Note: Mike Phillips is the Public Affairs Manager for the city of Scottsdale.

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