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The cost of fire
by Rinso
2006-11-15 10:01:13
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Matti Orrainen, the director of the Finnish National Rescue Association, has proposed that a sprinkler installation is installed in every house in Finland. The idea is that this could prevent nearly every fire death in Finland. Data from other countries seems to support this idea.

Most people who die in fires are either handicapped or intoxicated (alcohol) and therefore not able to escape on their own. A sprinkler in every house could keep fires small (or even extinguish them) and in that way save lives.

There are a few things terribly wrong with this idea. People in fires die from asphyxiation, not from burning. A fire that is not extinguished, but remains smouldering, still produces a lot of smoke and because of the incomplete burning, more (toxic) carbon monoxide is produced.

Secondly, handicapped/intoxicated people still need to be rescued. Of course, a sprinkler system makes the job of the fire fighters much easier and I will not deny that a sprinkler will save lives, but it is not a stand-alone solution. A small smouldering fire will not be detected by the neighbours and therefore the fire brigade has to be alarmed automatically.

"Every house should have a sprinkler," is an easy statement to make, but what are the benefits and the costs? In Finland, 85 people die every year in a fire. If sprinklers are introduced nationwide, the majority could be saved. However, this would require installation of sprinklers in 2.5 million homes and two million summer cottages. Based upon industrial systems, I estimate the costs between €5,000 and €10,000 per house. If we ignore the summer cottages and take the cheapest option, it will cost €12.5 billion; even if we find a way to build sprinkler systems for €400 per house, it will set us back €1bn just to save 85 people.

There are other more practical problems. Who is going to install the systems? Have you ever tried to find a plumber with spare time? Installing sprinklers in 2.5 million homes easily amounts to 20,000 men doing a year's work! So, before this operation is possible, a drastic change in immigration policies is needed, just to attract enough labour.

I will not discuss the technical problems to bring water pipes into every room in the house, the cost of maintenance, the automatic alarm to the fire brigade or the ways house owners may sabotage the system to prevent water damage due to false alarms.

As a former fire chief and fire safety legislator, I have often tried to introduce safety devices into a reluctant environment. But this is ridiculous! Alcohol is the number one cause of death in Finland, more then 1,650 persons per year and less than 85 of them die in a fire. If we want to make a difference, we should concentrate on real problems.

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Asa2006-11-14 11:01:47
Wouldn't a smoke alarm be even better?

Rinso2006-11-14 11:02:44
Self contained smoke alarms (detector plus buzzer plus battery) are already obligatory. They are however not fail save (empty battery) and are of little use for people who cannot help themselves.
Smoke detectors with an automatic alarm to the fire brigade however are very usefull. But due to the number of false alarms, fire services are not happy to get automatic calls from private residences. They mostly request inspection and manual call back first. In winter, in the very dry atmosphere, smoke detectors are prone to give more false alarms. And in the countriside where time between alarm and arrival of the fire brigade can often take more than 20 minutes, the effect of smoke detectors is limited.
I have been chairman of national (dutch) smoke detection standardization committees and also participated in European committees. I know that smoke detection systems are very good and very usefull, but only if there is a efficient organisation available.

Asa2006-11-14 20:55:38
What would happen in the case of an electrical fire?

Rinso2006-11-14 23:56:44
In the beginning probably nothing because the fire is contained inside the equipement. When the wires melt, the fuse will blow. When the fire developes outside the equipment and starts to generate heat in the room, the sprinkler will go of and stop the spreading of the fire.

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