High Fire Deaths in Mpls. Prompts Push for Statewide Fire Prevention

Updated: 03/15/2014 9:04 AM
Created: 03/14/2014 6:28 PM
By: Beth McDonough

Ten deaths in the first 10 weeks of the year because of house fires in Minneapolis. Half of the victims were children. 

The number of deaths are unprecedented. That's why so many fire chiefs in the state came to Minneapolis Friday to convince Minnesotans that fire alarms and sprinklers can make a difference.

Two more house fires in Minneapolis Friday drove home the point. One happened on the 2500 block of Portland where 18 people were burned out of the complex. The fire was accidental, it started in the kitchen when an unattended pot on the stove caught fire. Firefighters tell KSTP everyone got out safely, which is rarely the case in house fires.

When embers erupt inside a home, time is of the essence according to St. Paul Fire Chief Tim Butler. "Many of these fires are killing and injuring people long before the fire department gets the call," said Butler.

To prove that point, firefighters put on a demonstration to show how quickly flames get a head start. In one scenario a couch catches fire. The flames burn hot and fast, setting off the model home's sprinkler system in one minute and 15 seconds. "The sprinkler system can buy time until the fire department gets there," said Butler.

Compare that house fire to another one: a blaze breaks out in a model home without a sprinkler system. The flames double in size every minute. A smoke alarm lets you know there's trouble, but there's no help until firefighters step in with powerful water hoses at four minutes and 25 seconds. 

Experts using this scenario make the case for mandatory sprinklers in all newly built homes. "Today's new homes are tomorrow's 40-year old homes. All the homes where people died, if they'd been sprinkled when they were built, those people would be alive," said Chief George Esbensen of Eden Prairie.

Yet the Minnesota Builder's Association believes sprinklers are expensive and mandatory smoke alarms do enough. "There have been no fatalities in these houses over a decade, no fatalities since inter-connective smoke detector," said to Shawn Nelson, MN Builder's Association.

Smoke alarms became mandatory in 2003. Experts say they cut the risk of dying by 50 percent and decrease even more by 80 percent when sprinklers are in a home.

A judge ruled recently that the state can order builders to install sprinkler systems in new construction homes. If Governor Dayton signs off on it, it would go into effect this fall.

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