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Chief’s unwavering stance on home fire sprinklers leads to sprinkler ordinance

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By Fred Durso, Jr.

In 1999, Robert Gorvett, fire chief for the Village of Hoffman Estates in Illinois, proposed a residential fire sprinkler ordinance. Hoffman Estates was to be the largest municipality in Illinois at the time to require fire sprinklers in homes. It was no ordinary effort due to the village’s vast acreage for new subdivisions–a true Midwest “cornfield” community that would set a precedent for many of the 90-plus Illinois municipalities that now have residential fire sprinkler ordinances.

Although Chief Gorvett had the backing of his fire marshal, Hank Clemmensen, there was much external opposition. Original attempts to enact an ordinance garnered opposition from homebuilder associations and real estate groups. Political pressure from the village also came about, and Gorvett was threatened with not being made permanent fire chief if he did not drop the issue. But Gorvett did not fold under the pressure. Instead, he proposed a creative compromise that would slowly evolve into an ordinance that fully complies with NFPA 13D, Installation of Sprinkler Systems in One- and Two-Family Dwellings and Manufactured Homes.

Chief Gorvett had to start from scratch, educating many fire service members, citizens, and government officials with fire sprinkler demonstration trailers, side-by-side burn demonstrations, and retrofit demonstration projects. Gorvett and the fire department provided NFPA reports and statistics supporting home fire sprinklers, as well as educational materials from the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition (HFSC).

The compromised ordinance required fire sprinklers near all heat-producing devices (such as furnaces, ovens, fireplaces, etc.) in a home. However, if those devices were not walled off from other rooms, fire sprinklers would be additionally required into those adjoining rooms where fire could potentially spread. In the end, when all heat-producing devices and the areas around the heat-producing devices were sprinklered, it essentially meant most of a home was sprinklered.

After some high-profile fires in the village in 2002, it was finally conceded to sprinkler the entire home. Another reason for the full ordinance was that partially sprinklered homes were not being recognized by insurance companies for fire insurance discounts. The systems had no engineered guidelines to meet.

After the full ordinance finally passed, Chief Gorvett helped the fire department develop a homeowner educational packet. (The packet was a prelude to HFSC’s free “Living with Sprinklers” kit.) Gorvett also had the fire department work with the local high school to offer a hands-on trade shop class and open house event to further educate the public and teenagers on sprinklers. He also hosted a fire sprinkler summit in 2005 with a side-by-side demonstration for the public and continues to take advantage of fire sprinkler trailers for live fire/sprinkler demonstrations.

The fire service still backs the ordinance. The Fire Prevention Bureau still continues to work with fire sprinkler contractors and homebuilders to ensure quality installations and offer educational materials for homeowners. A major effort is made to maintain close relations with homebuilders and fire sprinkler contractors.

More than 2,600 homes there are now protected with NFPA 13D systems. Thanks to Chief Gorvett for his leadership and convictions, and for setting an example for other large, fast-growing suburbs.

This post was written by Tom Lia, executive director of the Northern Illinois Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting legislation, raising public awareness, and educating code officials and government policymakers on home fire sprinklers. Lia regularly offers his perspective on sprinkler activities taking place in his state and elsewhere.

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Source:: NFPA – Fire Sprinkler Initiative

Michael S. Williams

Michael S. Williams

Williams founded the Fire Services Training Institute in 1995 to find solutions to the challenges confronting the volunteer fire service. He has been an active member of California State Firefighters Association (CSFA) since 1994, having served on the volunteer and public relations committees, and as a southern division deputy director. He sits on several local organizations including the Santa Barbara County Fire Safe Council, the Tri-Counties Training Officers Association, Santa Barbara Chapter of CAER and is a founding member of the Santa Barbara PIO group Emergency Public Information Communicators (EPIC). He has been the author of many articles and a columnist for a local newspaper on public safety matters. He is also the co-host of Community Alert on KZSB AM-1290 in Santa Barbara. Williams has been a member of the California State Board of Fire Services since 2008. Prior to becoming involved in the volunteer fire service, Williams was a California police officer for 12 ½ years and a POST certified Field Training Officer. He is a licensed private investigator and security consultant specializing in self-insured, government and insurance defense assignments.


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