Modern Homes Have a Greater Fire Risk: fire officials tout home sprinklers

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True or false? Recently built family homes in the United States hold up better in a fire than those built 50 years ago.

If you thought "True," you're very much in the dark, fire officials say. And if more people don't learn otherwise, the consequences could be deadly.

The South Jersey Times recently spoke to some area fire service leaders who, like others nationwide, argue that modern light weight construction and the synthetic materials used in home furnishings make home fires exponentially more dangerous. And that, they say, means sprinkler systems inside homes are critical to protecting the lives of residents and firefighters.

Fire officials say sprinkler systems contain fires before they become a major threat, often canceling out the dangers posed by current construction and furnishings.

With that in mind, many are staunchly supporting a bill making its way through the state legislature that would require fire suppression sprinkler systems to be installed in all newly built single and two-family homes, with certain exceptions.

The bill, known as the New Home Fire Safety Act, passed the Assembly by a 44-30 vote in January. It has not yet come to the Senate floor for a vote.

The bill would not require sprinkler systems for manufactured homes or those not connected to a public water system.

Michael Scardino, Fire Marshal and Deputy Chief for the Winslow Township Fire Department, has passionately touted home sprinkler systems since well before the issue made it to the Statehouse.

Scardino, also a former chief of the department, is a fire instructor in Camden County, as well as an adjunct professor of fire science.

"Fifty years ago, the average American home had furniture made of natural materials - cottons, wools, things like that," he explained.

"Now, everything is synthetic. It's hydrocarbon-based, like crude oil. Things in homes are burning at higher temperatures than ever before, with higher fuel loads than ever before."

Such synthetics, burning hotter and faster, compound the dangers firefighters face, Scardino and colleagues argue.

They also add to the potential hodge-podge of chemicals and compounds created in the burning process.
P8131429.JPGThis photo shows the extensive damage done by fire to light-weight wood construction common to modern homes. Such damage can occur quickly and pose imminent danger of a collapse. (Photo courtesy of Michael Scardino, Winslow Township Fire Marshal)

Add to that the typically weaker wood structures modern builders use. Among them are particle board, which is made from wood chips or shavings bound by resin.

Light-weight wood used in a truss, an arrangement of beams or bars supporting a structure, can give way quickly, leading to deadly roof or floor collapses.

Washington Township Fire Chief John Hoffman is another home sprinkler system supporter, and for all the same reasons.

Large amounts of particle board can burn away in minutes, Hoffman said, turning what may appear to be a small fire into sudden death for firefighters. And that's just one possibility.


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