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Safety Is the Issue

March 11, 1987

Last year seven people died in residential fires in Orange County. Some of the victims might have lived if their homes had been equipped with fire sprinklers.

Some fire-prevention officials want sprinklers required in new residential construction, and the issue will soon be coming before at least 11 city councils and the county Board of Supervisors.

Firefighters and many building officials are convinced that the benefits of residential sprinklers outweigh cost considerations--about $1,000 for the average-sized home--because the record shows that sprinklers save lives, property and firefighting costs. Some builders see only the added construction costs.

Cost factors can't be ignored, but safety must be the central issue when the county board and the city councils consider requiring sprinklers in homes--especially in high-density areas and in rental units.

Nationally, about four of every five fire deaths occur in the home. Fire codes that require fire walls and smoke detectors have helped reduce residential fatalities; sprinklers would help even more.

Firefighters can't be in every home, ready to pounce on any blaze. The next best thing is a sprinkling system, which essentially does the same thing. In seconds sprinklers snuff out small fires to prevent their becoming major blazes.

They worked in San Clemente, which has required residential sprinklers since 1980, when a fire broke out at a condominium development nearing completion. Because of sprinklers, the damage was held to $10,000. Without them, fire officials said, the loss would have been more than $1 million.

An Anaheim apartment fire last July left hundreds homeless and caused $2.2 million in damage. With sprinklers the loss would have been much lower. Thus Anaheim firefighters are preparing to ask the council to require sprinklers.

The County Fire Department is now seeking a sprinkler code in Irvine (except for single-family detached homes), and plans to do the same in unincorporated areas and in nine other cities that contract for fire service.

Trade-offs can be negotiated with developers who oppose sprinklers. Fire doors could be eliminated and the sizes of water mains reduced to help offset costs. But there should be no compromise on the sprinklers themselves.

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