By Matthew Daigle
OXFORD HILLS — In the early morning hours of Nov. 2, a fire broke out at National Wood Products of Maine on Route 26.
Within 20 minutes, the fire had been snuffed out, long before it could fully engulf the room and cause any permanent damage.
Oxford Fire Chief Wayne Jones said that the fire began in a room where employees operate a paint booth, a piece of machinery that runs the risk of causing accidental fires.
He added that if it were not for the sprinklers installed within the room, the fire could have caused a lot more damage.
Norway Fire Chief Dennis Yates agreed with Jones’ assessment, adding, “I have no doubt in my mind that if that sprinkler system wasn’t there, things would’ve been much, much worse.”
Yates said that while many factories and some workplaces have sprinkler systems installed , they are “not very prevalent in residential buildings in the Oxford Hills area.”
He said that there is no requirement within the town’s building codes for a residential building to have a sprinkler system installed. It remains a decision for the person in charge of constructing the building to make.
“If a new nightclub were to open in town, that type of building would require a sprinkler system, according to the town’s building code,” Yates said. “It’s not required for residences to install them.”
Yates said that residential sprinkler systems remain an underused tool in homes, and that, despite any specific code requiring them, he remains an advocate for their installation in residential buildings.
State Fire Marshal Joseph Thomas said that the technology of sprinklers in 2016 are “just as proficient as they’ve ever been.”
However, the materials in which houses are being built have created fires that spread faster and are more powerful than before.
Enter the Maine Fire Sprinkler Coalition, a volunteer organization that has been working to promote awareness on residential sprinkler systems and educate people on their importance in fighting fires.
Thomas, who also serves as the chairman for the Maine Fire Sprinkler Coalition, said, “The strategic goal of the Maine Fire Sprinkler Coalition is to educate people on the goal of sprinklers and the importance of having a sprinkler in a residential building.”
“One of the issues we’ve been seeing with home furnishings is that we’re seeing flashovers within a range of three to four minutes after a fire starts,” he continued.
A flashover is described as the moment in which all of the combustible materials in a room reach their ignition temperatures at the same time.
“Some people have the benefit of early warning, with smoke detectors, but with these earlier flashovers, the time that people have to escape the fire is shrinking,” Thomas said. “We’re trying to show people that if you have early warning smoke detectors and residential sprinkler systems installed, your ability to escape improves.”
In the past, Thomas said that residential sprinkler systems were constructed with heavy piping. In recent years, he said builders have switched to plastic tubing, which is “much easier to install.”
Thomas said that one of the methods that the Maine Fire Sprinkler Coalition uses to educate residents about the importance of residential sprinkler systems is to hold a “side-by-side demonstration.”
He said that the coalition will build two identical living room settings next to one another: one without the protection of a residential sprinkler system and one with a sprinkler system.
Both rooms are set on fire, with one room relying on an early warning smoke detector, and the other relying on both the smoke detector and a sprinkler system.
“The goal of this demonstration is to reflect the time limit we’re talking about now, in terms of flashover,” Thomas said. “It shows how vital a sprinkler system is inside a residence.”
Otisfield Fire Chief Kyle Jordan said that residents can decide whether or not they install a sprinkler system in their residence.
“I can’t think of many of them, because it’s a personal decision for the residents,” Jordan said. “However, I would absolutely suggest them. They are a life- and property-saving measure that most residents don’t take advantage of.”
He explained that in rural Maine, with volunteer fire agencies, firefighters are leaving their day jobs to get to the scene of a fire, meaning “time is very, very important.”
“If there’s any way that you could have a system that would slow down the spread of the fire so fire departments can get there, you should use it,” Jordan added.
Adrien Moren, chief of the Waterford Fire Department, said that he’s not familiar with residential sprinkler systems in Waterford, and described them as “rare.”
“I know there’s an expense to them, and that some of the businesses in the area have them,” he said. “But I’m not sure there are any residential sprinklers in the area.”
Thomas said that one of the common knocks against residential sprinkler systems is the cost.
He said that the national average cost for a home fire sprinkler system is $1.32 per square foot, a decrease from the last Home Fire Sprinkler Cost Assessment report from the Fire Protection Research Foundation in 2013, which identified the cost at $1.35 per square foot for new construction.
Thomas said a cost comparison that the Sprinkler Coalition uses is “granite counter tops.”
“A home fire sprinkler system costs about as much as granite counter tops,” he said. “People think about that, and it’s not an issue, but some think about paying for a home sprinkler system, and suddenly, it’s a big deal. You just have to ask yourself: How much is your family worth?”
He added that people who believe a residential sprinkler system will destroy their home with water rather than fire “need to decide if they just want wet sheetrock and stuff that can be vacuumed up, or total destruction of their belongings.”
“People have this misinformation that all of the sprinkler heads in a building go off when there’s a fire, but that’s not true,” Thomas said. “The sprinkler heads in the closest proximity of the actual fire will go off.”
Thomas explained that a sprinkler head “generally releases at about 155 degrees.”
“The heat triggers the sprinkler head, not the actual flame or smoke,” he said. “The sprinkler head itself has a little vial of liquid in it, and as it expands from the heat, it eventually bursts. The plug holding everything closed comes loose, and that’s when the water comes out.”
Thomas said that another misunderstanding that some people have is that buildings on the National Register of Historic Places cannot have sprinkler systems installed.
“It’s allowable, because even buildings within the National Register have been sprinkled,” Thomas said. “If something like that is ever an issue, as far as the aesthetics of the building, you can install a recessed sprinkler head. There’s a cover that goes over the head, and you can paint it to match the color of the wall. It actually blends in so it doesn’t stand out.”