One day in 1968, Costa Mesa firefighter Ron Coleman responded to a blaze at the Columbia Yachts plant. But by the time fire crews had arrived, ceiling sprinklers had the flames under control.
A few days later, he responded to a much different scene. Firefighters raced to an apartment house only to discover a teen-age girl dead in a smoke-filled living room.
"What are we doing in this business when we can protect fiberglass boats and can't protect a 14-year-old child?" Coleman recalls asking himself at the time.
That experience started Coleman on a crusade to require fire sprinklers in homes, as they are in many commercial buildings. By 1979, he had persuaded San Clemente, where he was then fire chief, to mandate sprinklers in all new residences, making it the first U.S. city with such a requirement.
Other cities eventually followed suit, and now at least 18 cities in Southern California require sprinklers in all new houses, duplexes, condominiums and apartments.
Most have done so in the last year, and many ordinances are so new that no homes with sprinklers are available yet because houses already under construction or with plans submitted don't have to add them.
Officials say the trend is only starting. When San Clemente passed its ordinance, builders had to install commercial sprinklers like those in grocery stores. Now, home fire sprinklers are available that are less than half the commercial size and that operate on regular household plumbing.
The new technology and a determined campaign by fire safety organizations are persuading city after city to adopt residential sprinkler ordinances. Advocates hope eventually to make fire sprinklers a standard fixture in homes everywhere.
More than 500 cities nationwide have at least partial sprinkler ordinances, with perhaps 10% of those requiring sprinklers in all housing. California has more ordinances than any other state, said Jim Dalton, director of Operation Life Safety, a Washington, D.C., organization sponsored by the International Assn. of Fire Chiefs.
Cities in Orange and San Bernardino counties have been the most aggressive about requiring sprinklers.
In the city of Los Angeles, fire officials' priority is getting sprinklers for existing high-rise buildings, because fires in those structures involve more people, and escape is more difficult than from homes, said Battalion Chief John Badgett.
The Los Angeles County Fire Department encourages cities that use its services to require sprinklers, Capt. Gene Wolfe said, and sprinklers are suggested in county areas where access is difficult. The department would like all new homes in unincorporated areas to have sprinklers, but the extra cost would be a burden to home buyers, he said.
Sprinklers have been used in commercial buildings for more than 100 years, said Glendale Fire Marshal Chris Gray, but not until recently in individual homes, even though that's where most fire deaths occur.
More than 6,000 people die in fires nationwide, and 80% of those deaths occur in residences, according to the U.S. Fire Administration, which is part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In California, 116 people died in 1988 in the state's 21,963 residential fires, the majority in one- or two-family dwellings.
Sprinklers could save most of those lives, especially the very young or very old who can't escape by themselves, said Coleman, 49, now Fullerton fire chief.
But not everybody is happy about the trend.
Builders say they are already overloaded with other costs and fees that keep pushing up the price of housing. They question whether sprinklers are necessary for people who don't smoke and are careful about fire hazards.
Christine Reed, executive director of the Orange County Building Industry Assn., said people are concerned about affordable housing, not sprinklers.
It's not that builders don't care about safety, she said, but smoke detectors, fire stations and fire-retardant housing materials provide protection. "Is there really a need for another fee for fire sprinklers?" Reed asked.
Fire officials say sprinklers can be put into new homes for as little as 70 or 80 cents a square foot, while builders say the cost is closer to $1.50, or even higher in places with extensive specifications.
Bart Doyle, general counsel of the Building Industry Assn. of Southern California, said there are some Orange County homes where sprinklers cost $8,000 for a 3,200-square-foot house.
The National Assn. of Home Builders' research shows that for every $1,000 price increase, 22,000 families are priced out of the housing market nationwide, spokesman Richard Morris said.
Despite energetic efforts, Doyle said, the BIA hasn't had much luck stopping cities from dictating sprinklers and is considering taking the matter to court. At the city council level, it's hard to fight the emotional issue of burning babies, he said.