CHEYENNE – One room had a smoke alarm. The other room had a smoke alarm and a single sprinkler head.

The room with only a smoke alarm continued to burn for eight minutes – Cheyenne Fire Rescue typically arrives on scene of a structure fire in five to seven minutes – until a firefighter extinguished the flames.

The temperature of the room was around 1,000 degrees, measured using a thermal camera, and the furniture was destroyed.

The fire in the room with a smoke alarm and a single sprinkler head was out in less than two minutes. The room saw substantially less damage.

The side-by-side demonstration, conducted by Cheyenne Fire Rescue in the parking lot west of the Cheyenne Public Safety Center on Wednesday, revealed the speed at which a fire sprinkler suppresses the fire in the room, while the other room continued to burn and was already at flashover, the point at which everything in the room ignites.

With heat, toxic gases, smoke and fire building up, no one survives flashover, Cheyenne Fire Rescue Chief Greg Hoggatt said.

“A smoke alarm is a great way to get your attention and wake you up when there is a problem,” Hoggatt said. “But what we want to emphasize is survivability. From two to three minutes after a fire starts, you’re out of your survivability window.”

Today’s modern furniture and other items in the household are based on petroleum byproducts and synthetics, Hoggatt said.

“It burns twice as fast and twice as hot as what generations before us were witnessing,” he said. “What used to take 15-30 minutes for a fully involved structure fire is now down to three to five minutes.”

But sprinklers allow home occupants to survive the fire, Hoggatt said.

“Sprinklers, on average, activate from the heat of the fire usually within 60 seconds, giving you time to survive and reduce property loss,” he said.

According to the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition, the risk of dying in a residential fire decreases by about 85% if sprinklers are present.

When sprinklers were present, fires were kept to the room of origin 97% of the time.

Prior to the outdoor fire presentation, the department hosted a panel discussion regarding residential sprinkler systems.

Gene Kessner, district claims manager with Mountain West Farm Bureau Insurance, said from an insurance perspective, “We want to minimize damage.”

“But I would like to make it clear that first and foremost, I would like to see lives saved,” Kessner said. “Houses can be rebuilt. Possessions can be replaced. Lives cannot. There is no way to put an economic value on that cost.”

Kessner said insurance companies believe sprinkler systems save lives and property and some give discounts to customers. He said companies give 10-15% discounts for customers who install full sprinkler systems in their homes.

“There may be minor fire damage, but it’s going to be a water restoration,” he said. “Water restoration times are considerably faster.”

Kessner said a home that sustained fire damage that is not a total loss can be rebuilt in about 12 months. Homes with only water and smoke damage can be restored in a couple of months.

In the event of a fire, according to the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition, typically only the sprinkler closest to the fire will activate, spraying water directly on the fire, leaving the rest of the residence dry and secure. Roughly 89 percent of the time, just one sprinkler operates.

Lane Pilbin with Wyoming Fire Protection, a fire sprinkler contractor, said what movies and television portray perpetuates the myth that an entire system activates all at once, causing widespread water damage to the structure.

“One of the things I consistently hear from people is whether all of the sprinklers go off,” Pilbin said. “They don’t.”

Wednesday’s panel also included Brad Brooks of the Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities and Byron Mathews, a Laramie County homeowner and member of Cheyenne Fire Rescue.

Steve Knight is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s local government reporter. He can be reached at 307-633-3182 or sknight@wyomingnews.com.

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