Push for home sprinklers to combat fire risk in new-builds

A change to the national building code is being suggested to confront the frightening reality being presented by many newly-built homes in Canada.

Officials in the fire industry warn the popular open-concept style homes, constructed with lightweight materials, are far worse standing up to blazes than older homes.

The Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs says the open-concept design allows fires to spread more easily, through a lack of walls and doors.

It's throwing its weight behind a group that has been commissioned to investigate the costs and benefits of adding residential sprinkler systems to the national building code.

"Modern construction practices and modern contents in our buildings are creating a significantly different fire picture than it was even 10 or 20 years ago," says spokesman Sean Tracey.

"The nature of these contents make these fires burn faster, hotter and quicker more than ever before."

Tracey says thin pieces of lumber used in the construction of walls and floors in some homes creates danger for homeowners wanting to escape, and firefighters wanting to douse the flames.

"The floors start collapsing around six minutes in to the start of a basement fire, so we have no idea how well those floors are going to perform."

The association is now pushing for more widespread use of residential sprinkler systems, and hopes work being done on an updated national building code will factor that in.

The National Research Council of Canada has been assisting a group working on a cost-benefit analysis of residential sprinkler systems in homes across the country.

"We've looked at the costs, the kind of benefits which would be attributed to having sprinklers in these homes which would be a reduction in injuries, a reduction in deaths, and reduction in property damage as well," says National Research Council program director Phil Rizcallah.

Rizcallah says the group, which falls under the Canadian Commission on Building and Fire Codes, is working towards an update of the national building code in 2020.

He says a lot more work needs to be done before any changes are made, and acknowledges one of the ultimate barriers in implementing sprinklers will be cost.

"It has to go through a series of consultations and considerations ... once that national code is developed then it's up to the individual provinces to actually adopt that code."

A draft report with recommendations will be reviewed in March.