Editorial: Changing times, technologies give cause to renew debate about sprinkler mandates

The people living in the Barrington Hills home that went up in flames last weekend were, by all accounts. lucky. Nobody died. Had the house fire started in the middle of the night, the story could have been different.

A brush fire in the back of the house got out of hand when burning debris blew over to the side of the $1 million-plus home and traveled up the outside of the structure to the attic. Forty fire departments from all over northern Illinois and 30 tankers of water - a fortune in manpower and equipment - couldn't keep the house from being destroyed.

Nothing will prevent fires. Humans will err, lightning will strike, dryers will malfunction, electrical units will short.

Out in the rural Barrington area, or anywhere where great houses are built over wells and septic systems instead of water and sewer lines, fires pose a much greater risk to human life. Because there are no water lines, there are no fire hydrants.

For nearly two decades, debates over requiring sprinklers in new homes have risen and fallen in rural Barrington and other country suburbs. Most towns have rejected the idea as being too expensive and an unwelcome mandate on homebuilders and homeowners.

It's time to reopen the debate, because in those two decades, circumstances have changed.

Sprinkler technology has improved - they no longer drench the whole house for a fire confined to a small area. Newer technology allows sprinklers to be installed in attics, where in years past those pipes would be in danger of freezing.

More compelling, however, is the greater danger our possessions put us in. Plastics and furniture are made of petroleum, highly flammable when burned. Experts say today's fires burn hotter and double in size quicker than before.

Since 1988, when Long Grove became the first Illinois community to require sprinklers in new homes, 97 other communities have signed on, Lake Barrington included.

Countryside Fire Protection District Fire Chief Jeff Steingart, whose district covers about a third of Long Grove, says that in five years, five fires have been kept small by residential sprinklers - saving about $3 million in property damage.

Long Grove Fire Protection District Fire Marshal Michael Schmitt says he knows of at least five or six house fires since 1998 that sprinklers prevented from becoming potentially deadly conflagrations. He also estimates more than half of the homes in the Long Grove fire district now have sprinklers.

He thinks that's progress, and so do we.

Two years ago, the Illinois State Fire Marshal proposed, and then rescinded, a requirement to add sprinklers to all new single-family and two-family homes built in Illinois. It's up to individual communities to re-engage this topic. The Barrington Hills fire is another reminder that times have changed, and we have to change to meet them.

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