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Stephen Coan

 

Massachusetts State Fire Marshal Stephen Coan speaks at the NFPA Home Fire Sprinkler Summit in Chicago, April 2012
Massachusetts State Fire Marshal Stephen Coan, who is marking his 34th year in the fire service, provided an overview of the home fire sprinkler fight in the Commonwealth.

He said that with the adoption of the International Residential Code (IRC), which establishes minimum regulations for one- and two-family dwellings and includes sprinkler requirements, “we all thought that the battle for sprinklers was won”. However, the Massachusetts Board of Building Regulations and Standards (BBRS) promulgated the code and omitted the provision to require home fire sprinklers.

A statewide coalition, coordinated by NFPA and with representation by every major fire service organization in the state, worked for months, protesting the amended building code. But despite a state-wide effort, including rallies, side-by-side sprinkler demonstrations, and an advertising campaign, the BBRS rejected the stretch code proposal in February 2012.

“It’s ironic that the Massachusetts building code has been enhanced to cover earthquake, hurricane, and energy issues, but not fire safety,” said Marshal Coan, pointing to a recent wind-whipped fire that destroyed four homes in the oceanfront community of Scituate. “It is quite clear that the real and present danger here is fire, not hurricanes or earthquakes, yet our building officials will not move to protect one -and two-family homes,” he said.

Marshal Coan said that the state has had limited success in requiring residential sprinklers through special permits by local zoning boards. He referenced a December 2011 fire in Lunenburg, MA in a condo protected by sprinklers installed through that special permit process. The fire, which involved a live Christmas tree, was quickly extinguished by the sprinkler system, resulting in no injuries and so little damage that the family living in the unit was not displaced.

What are the next steps for Massachusetts?
Fire Marshal Coan said advocates need to develop consistent, strong messaging that connect with the public, lawmakers, and code officials. “We also need to reshape the attitudes and beliefs that many home builders have about sprinklers,” he said, adding that it’s essential that advocates actively rebut the misperceptions that have been created by sprinkler opponents.

Lorraine Carli, NFPA’s vice president of Communications, said, “We may have lost the battle in Massachusetts, but raising the visibility of fire issue in the state was a huge step forward for us, and we will continue to work with fire officials in the state to make home fire sprinklers a reality.”