Fire sprinklers' power on display

Vancouver Fire Department demonstration spurred by rash of fire-related deaths in 2014

By Patty Hastings, Columbian breaking news reporter

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Following four fire-related deaths so far this year in Vancouver, the city's fire department demonstrated on Wednesday just how quickly fire can move through a bedroom and how home sprinklers can suppress the flames.

Deputy Fire Marshal Zane Norris said he hopes to prevent more fatalities by changing people's habits and promoting the use of more fire safety features in Clark County buildings.

"The majority of those fires were preventable," Norris said, standing before two mock bedrooms at the Vancouver Fire Department headquarters. "It's terrifying to me." The two rooms contained similar contents — a bed, night stand, lamp, curtains, board games and a smoke detector — but one had a sprinkler system and the other did not. In 30 seconds, the bedroom without the sprinkler system was fully engulfed in flames, with every item in the room ignited. "I think it's important for people to really see it," Fire Marshal Heidi Scarpelli said.

The sprinkler system malfunctioned in the other bedroom setup, taking slightly longer than it should have. With an open-air setup, the demonstration fires also had extra oxygen and grew faster than normal.

Scarpelli said it typically takes 50 to 60 seconds for a sprinkler system to go off in a typical home. Home sprinkler systems are heat-activated, releasing a spray of water when the room reaches 165 degrees.

"They're made to allow enough time for you to get out of the building," Norris said.

Most residences in Vancouver don't have sprinkler systems, unless they're required to, Scarpelli said. A 5,000-square-foot home and a home that's hard to access would already have those safety features built in by law.

Still, having sprinkler systems in every home is considered the fire safety wave of the future. Building owners can install a system for about $1 per square foot, Scarpelli said. Safer construction materials and sprinkler systems are often built into new homes and apartments, showing that a lot has changed over the years in terms of fire prevention. The three leading causes of residential fires are unattended cooking, smoking and candles, in that order.

"You don't need to have a sprinkler system. That's the optimum, but you can make things a lot safer by changing some habits," she said. People should watch what they're cooking; properly dispose of cigarettes in water and metal containers; and consider alternatives to traditional wax candles. Norris said he recently used LED candles during his proposal to his girlfriend.

Bedroom protected by sprinklers

A bedroom not protected by a sprinkler system