I’ve written the headline above this column before, although this time I added more punctuation and the last word for emphasis. Sadly, the first time I used this headline at the top of one of my editorials was almost seven years ago.
At the time, I was the publisher and editor of a news magazine whose readers included fire sprinkler contractors. My editorial on the back page appeared in the same issue whose front page carried a news story about people dying in a building not equipped with fire sprinklers.
The article marked the second time in 2003 that a news story about people dying in an unsprinklered building had made the front page. That second article reported on a fire in a county government high-rise in Chicago where six people died from smoke inhalation.
The earlier news story reported on the fire in a West Warwick, R.I., nightclub where 100 people died in a fire caused by a rock band’s foolish use of pyrotechnics. The tragedies in Chicago and Rhode Island caused the public, politicians and press to demand that property owners retrofit their buildings with fire sprinklers.
Building owners countered by saying retrofits cost too much. They apparently never had heard the saying about not being able to put a price on life.
Nevertheless, in 2003 Rhode Island Congressman Jim Langevin introduced a bill that would help owners retrofit their buildings with fire sprinklers by giving them a tax break. The legislation then languished in Congress.
Much has happened since 2003. For one, 24,500 people have died in the United States as a result of fires, if we use the industry figure of 3,500 fire fatalities per year.
For another, the recession has wracked the U.S. economy. The recession has both hurt and helped the cause of sprinkler retrofits.
On the downside, owners say they’re in an even worse position to pay for building improvements. Piling on are some politicians who say the country can't afford to give the owners a tax break.
On the upside, the bill has been reintroduced in Congress with bipartisan support. The Fire Sprinkler Incentive Act of 2010 would amend the 1986 Internal Revenue Code to classify fire sprinkler retrofits as a five-year property for the purposes of depreciation, down from 39 years.
The bill now is being viewed as a vehicle not only to incentivize building owners to save lives and property but also to stimulate the economy and create jobs. A coalition of groups that support the bill estimates that up to 60,000 people who install fire sprinkler systems are unemployed right now.
If you design fire protection systems, you’re more aware than most of the importance of sprinklers. We urge you to contact your representatives in Washington to let them know you support this bill.
It’s time to get serious about sprinkler retrofits again. While we’re excited about the change in the International Residential Code that will bring sprinklers to new homes next year, let’s not forget about older buildings that need fire sprinklers now.