Requirements for new safety equipment, whether seatbelts or bike helmets, are seldom received with unalloyed public enthusiasm. Nobody’s against safety per e, as long as it doesn’t cost anything or inconvenience anyone.


The applause, then, was distinctly muted this week as Ottawa Fire Chief John de Hooge called for fire sprinkler systems in all residences. As of April 1, sprinklers will be mandatory in all new condo and apartment buildings more than three storeys high. Most fire deaths, however, occur in single and two-family houses.


This past winter, fires damaged or destroyed eight apartment buildings and left some 200 people homeless. There were deaths, too. There always are, but Chief de Hooge insists that many could be prevented with sprinklers.


He points out that a house constructed of modern building materials can be consumed by fire in three minutes. Sprinklers can extend that to six or 12 minutes, reduce the amount of material in the air that obscures vision and hinders breathing, and can cut overall fire losses by 90 per cent.


Who could be against more safety? Well, the Greater Ottawa Home Builders’ Association, and, it turns out, most homebuyers. The association opposes any regulation of this sort on the basis of its cost, which adds $3,000 to $6,000 to the price of a new home.

They point to a CMHC study, which calculates that $38 million would have to be spent on sprinklers to save one life. Smoke detectors are thought to save a life for every $2 million invested. Even when builders offer sprinklers as an option, homebuyers balk at the expense.
Nobody, it seems, wants sprinklers until the house is actually on fire, and this is why 220 jurisdictions in North America have stepped in and made them mandatory.

Vancouver, which has required sprinklers in new residential buildings since 1990, has seen its rate of fire-related fatalities reduced by more than half, and not a single fire death has been reported in a sprinkler-equipped building.

Last year, Ottawa city council supported a provincial private member’s bill from Liberal cabinet minister Linda Jeffrey, which would have allowed municipalities to require the installation of sprinklers in all new residential buildings. When the legislature prorogued this month, though, Bill 72 was among the casualties and will have to be re-introduced.

In the absence of any requirements, Ottawa homebuyers will continue to save money by exposing their homes and lives to greater risk. Somehow I doubt that those left surveying the burnt wreck of their house will be cheered by the couple thousand they saved on sprinklers.

– Steve Collins lives, writes and walks in Ottawa;