It’s not uncommon for those opposed to legislation mandating the installation of residential fire sprinklers in new developments to claim that fire alarms are perfectly adequate protection against fire, and that sprinklers aren’t needed—especially not in homes, which don’t have the particular fire risks you’d find at a warehouse or manufacturing facility. And while it’s true that fire alarms are responsible for saving thousands of lives, they’re not perfect—and they can’t be considered complete protection against fire. Here are just a few reasons why fire sprinklers outshine fire alarm systems when it comes to protection.
Fire alarms aren’t as reliable. It’s common for a fire alarm’s reliability to decline as it ages. The problem is so widespread that manufacturers have started putting an expiration date on fire alarms to indicate they should be replaced every ten years or so. However, it’s difficult to say how many fire alarms will be replaced at the correct intervals—and how reliable fire alarm systems will be after they’ve hit the ten-year mark if they are not replaced. By contrast, fire sprinkler systems typically last approximately 50 years, and require very little maintenance.
Fire alarms have a higher fail rate. In the U.S., it’s estimated that approximately 96% of residences have fire alarm systems installed. However, it’s also estimated that 25% of the time, fire alarms failed to warn residents when a fire started in their homes. It’s extremely common for false fire alarms to sound as a result of too much smoke in the kitchen or other harmless reasons, leading some homeowners to turn them off temporarily—and forget to turn them back on.
Compare that to the failure rate for fire sprinklers. Fire sprinkler systems malfunction extremely rarely; it’s estimated that approximately 1 in 500,000 fire sprinkler systems malfunctions due to manufacturers’ defects. Fire sprinklers are much less likely to activate without good reason—or fail to activate in case of fire.
Fire alarms aren’t as effective as you’d think. Fire alarm systems are loud—but can they wake you immediately from a very deep sleep, from several rooms or several floors away? In a U.S. study conducted in 2006, only 58% of a group of children ranging in age from 6 to 12 woke up when a fire alarm activated, and only 38% were able to leave the area in a safe amount of time. This backs up the observation that young children and the elderly are much more likely to die in a fire than healthy adults.
Fire alarms don’t provide active protection. Fire alarms may alert people to the existence of a fire, but they can do nothing to help them evacuate or to control the fire. On the other hand, fire sprinklers work to control a fire before firefighters can arrive on the scene, and they don’t require manual operation as fire extinguishers do. Unlike fire alarm systems, fire sprinklers can work to protect even those who have difficulty evacuating on their own—such as children, the elderly and the handicapped.
Fire alarms do help protect people from fire. But they can’t provide complete protection—and many fire fatalities occur in homes with fire alarm systems installed. However, no fire fatality has ever been recorded in a home with fire sprinkler systems installed. The difference is clear—if you’re looking for true safety and protection from fire, fire alarms are not enough.