Inspections, Sprinkler Systems Key To Fire Safety

Aug 14, 2013

In Vermont, there are 32 fire inspectors, in four regional offices around the state.  In 2012, they did 17,000 inspections, according to Mike O’Neil, Director of the Division of Fire Safety for the state of Vermont.

“It’s a lot of work, we’re covering a pretty big footprint of the state, rural areas, municipalities as well,” O’Neil said.  

That’s just the state inspectors.

“We have 13 communities that we have municipal inspection agreements with. They conduct their own inspections to some degree. Whether they’re full service like the city of Burlington, for example which has their own fire inspectors, building inspectors, plumbing inspectors, electrical inspectors all the way down to the smaller communities that just do fire inspections only,” he explained.

O’Neil said there is a balance between making a building as fire safe as possible without increasing costs.

“You can take a building as safe as possible and not make it habitable. Or make it so cost-prohibitive that either number one, people can’t afford to live there or number two, the property owner can’t afford to develop it. It’s always a balance.”

Critics have said that the state of Vermont may not be doing enough to inspect new buildings, but codes change, and unless there’s a complaint, buildings may not be re-inspected. O’Neil said they make an effort to inspect all public buildings.

“Vermont’s fire code requires inspection of all public buildings outside of single family residences every time a new code is adopted, any changes in the codes is usually a result of studies of fires in the past,” he said. And he pointed out the progress that has been made.  

“If you remember years ago when Vermont didn’t require smoke detectors, we were leading the nation in the fire death rate. For a small state, that’s a pretty dubious distinction to have the highest per capita fire death rate in the country. And it has to do with modernizing your codes and up-to-date inspections. That was a real transformation in the state when those numbers started to come out about how high our death rate was, we reconstituted state government and created the Division of Fire Safety,” O’Neil said.

O’Neil said sprinkler systems are an important tool when it comes to fire safety.

“That is the one definite fire safety system that usually doesn’t require human intervention. Because human intervention is usually what causes the problems we have that result in fires. Having said that, we do understand the cost of sprinklers systems are expensive. Our feeling is that sprinklers are not as cheap as they could be in this state because it’s not a mandatory sprinkler state. Nationally, if you look at the cost of residential sprinklers, usually the difference in cost is a carpet upgrade in a new dwelling,” O’Neil explained.  

But he said contractors show him estimates for sprinkler systems that are astronomical and not cost effective.

“It really is because the sprinkler folks are set up to do big commercial systems. And they haven’t made that switch because there isn’t a real call for it. If there isn’t a big call to put in these residential type systems that are a lower cost, the sprinkler contractors aren’t going to give up their operations to do that.”

A brand-new building in Vermont, depending on the occupancy, whether it’s residential or commercial, any multiple story, multi-dwelling residential unit is required to have sprinklers.

The installation of sprinkler systems is the number one thing that can be done for fire safety. The other part is education, O’Neil said.

“I’ve seen it in my 30 plus years of service. Folks don’t ever think going to happen to them, they think fires happen to someone else through bad luck or whatever. But the reality is, fires do happen, we’ve seen it a number of times, and the vast majority of these fires that are large property loss fires, that put people on the street with nowhere to live, would have been a minor issue if there was a sprinkler system.”

“One of the things we hoped to come out of a summer study was a recognition from the contractors, sprinkler installers, and real estate professionals was a real push together to understand this problem. There are credits to install sprinkler systems,” O’Neil said.

“Could we do more? We need to do a lot more, there’s no doubt in my mind. It’s easy to say we can’t do it because of economics. However, what’s a life worth? If we decide that this is something important, people put their lives together and they find a way to make it work.”

VPR looks at these issues in our week-long series Burned Out: Vermont's Apartment Fires. Explore the series online or hear it beginning Monday August 12 at 7:50 a.m. during Morning Edition.