Saturday, February 20, 2010

The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire

I am still irritated at the County Council over the bill that could mandate sprinkler systems in new homes. Watching the “debate” about this bill on television confirmed many of my personal biases about our dysfunctional government. The only people that offered testimony were special interests: several fire department personnel spoke in favor of the bill, and one spokesperson for a home builders group (who actually had a good argument but was perhaps the most inarticulate person to walk the face of the Earth) spoke against the bill.

I should offer a response to a question that Mary Kay Sigaty raised, because although I find it to be completely absurd, it may appear to be legitimate to people who don't watch Milton Friedman debates on YouTube for fun. After the hack for the home builder group smartly said that the decision to put a sprinkler in your home should be a personal choice and not one that's mandated by the government, Mary Kay asked him this question: “Do firefighters have the personal choice to go into a burning building?”

The home building hack lamely replied something like, “No, they don't have that choice.”

The only problem is that this response is not actually true.

Obviously firefighters have the personal choice to enter into the firefighting profession, but that's not the substantive response to MKS's question. Much more importantly, the incident commander who is on the scene and in charge of the firefighters needs to make a decision: do the risks of the task at hand exceed the rewards? In other words, is going into this burning building an acceptable risk? If the building is fully involved in flames and no one is trapped inside, obviously it makes perfect sense to let the home burn. Be sure to spray some water on it at a safe distance from the outside- burn it down with grace so the pictures in the newspaper show that you're doing something. The insurance company will replace the destroyed home with a brand new one.

If the building is fully involved and someone is trapped, it probably still makes sense to let the home burn and not go inside. The likelihood of a successful rescue must be measured against the chance of sending a crew of firefighters on a suicide mission. As I recall from my firefighting days, the problem an incident commander faces in such a situation is not a lack of firefighters willing to take the risk, it's actually the opposite problem. Many firefighters will volunteer to take unacceptable risks- particularly if one of their own becomes trapped.

In other situations, people may be trapped in dangerous scenarios, but thanks to proper training and good equipment, a successful rescue can reasonably be expected. This is why Howard County provides financial resources to the fire department and why firefighters are considered heroes.

Mandating that people put sprinklers in their homes is not a good idea. I would venture to say that $150 worth of smoke detectors and a home evacuation plan (which costs nothing but some time to develop and practice) makes you FAR safer than just having a $4,000 home sprinkler system. I doubt that anyone from the fire department would suggest that a sprinkler system takes the place of smoke detectors and an evacuation plan. And I am not suggesting that smoke detectors be mandated. The government should not be mandating anything. Personal responsibility and consequences cause people to make the best decisions.

Might I suggest that if you don't have enough smoke detectors, you make a trip to Home Depot and pick some up. No need to end up like this dude.