Author(s): Lorraine Carli. Published on May 7, 2020.

The Incentive Option

How planners and AHJs are engaging homebuilders with an array of creative incentives to encourage the installation of home fire sprinklers


Related Content

Read the recent NFPA report on home structure fires.
Read articles on ProPublica on the home building industry's war on home fire sprinklers.

Home fire sprinklers have been proven as the best protection available to minimize home fire injury and death for both civilians and responding firefighters. Even so, this life-saving solution is being blocked in more than half the states in the country.

For more than a decade, the NFPA and International Code Council model national codes have included requirements to install fire sprinklers in all new one- and two-family homes. But that important progress has been stymied by national homebuilder and real estate groups that have waged an unprecedented campaign at every level to stop home fire sprinkler codes. Their antagonism continues to this day, bankrolled by hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of lobbying money. The NFPA Fire Sprinkler Initiative has tracked the result of this dogged and expensive activity: 29 states currently prohibit statewide and new local sprinkler adoptions. 

Including sprinklers in new residential construction can provide builders with a range of incentives, including reduced street widths, longer dead-end streets, subdivision single-access points, higher building density, increased setbacks, and fewer fire hydrants. Getty Images

Fortunately, there are other ways to introduce home fire sprinklers into new homes. Where sprinkler codes are not in place or are prohibited, authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs) are successfully using incentives as an important part of their negotiations with builders to include sprinklers in new-home developments. These incentives—also referred to as trade-ups—can take many forms, and leverage sprinkler installation as a way for builders to creatively identify other cost-saving areas in their development projects. This is the fastest path that AHJs and local planners can take to build in fire protection in new construction.

Like many of you, I’ve spent much more time at home in recent weeks than I ever thought I would, and it’s gotten me thinking about the concept of home as shelter—and how easy it can be for us to take the safety of our homes for granted. As vice president of Outreach and Advocacy at NFPA, my job is to keep a bright light trained on the importance of fire safety, including the critical importance of home fire sprinklers in the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem™. While many legislative avenues for home sprinklers may be blocked at the moment, the incentive approach is an effective means of ensuring that the ecosystem around home fire safety remains healthy and intact.

Last October, NFPA released its “Home Structure Fire” report with key findings about causes and circumstances of home structure fires from 2013 through 2017. While fires and fire deaths have decreased significantly in the past 40 years, the picture remains troubling. Of all structures, homes are where we are most vulnerable. Home fires account for four of every five fire deaths and three of every four fire injuries. Seasoned firefighters will confirm what researchers have repeatedly demonstrated: the design of modern homes, along with the materials used to build them and their highly combustible furnishings, result in fires that burn much faster today than they used to, shrinking the time to escape to as little as two minutes. If you have a fire in your home today, you are more likely to die from it than you were in 1980.

In addition to faster flashover and collapse, modern home fires produce far more toxic smoke than in years past. The risk to civilians is compounded by the significant hazards faced by firefighters in home fires, which include death, injury, and higher rates of cancer resulting from the products of combustion.

All of these dangers are readily and effectively addressed when fire sprinklers are installed in new homes. But this straightforward, affordable approach is often overlooked or prohibited, and most new homes are built without sprinkler protection. The National Association of Home Builders estimates that 1.8 million new homes are built each year, but only 5 percent of those are estimated to include sprinklers. This creates millions of homes that will remain unprotected for decades.

I know from many conversations with members of the fire service that bringing up fire codes with homebuilders and developers too often results in a hard “no.” But when the topic of requirements is left off the table in favor of valuable incentives, the outcome is often different. AHJs in communities across the country are finding their local developers much more amenable to the fire sprinkler discussion when they understand they can save money and often increase their profits by installing sprinklers in new homes and taking advantage of corresponding trade-ups.

By installing home sprinklers, developers can consider incentives that include higher building density with additional units permitted. They may be able to install fewer fire hydrants, and may not need to expand the existing water system. They may consider reduced street widths, longer dead-end streets, subdivision single-access points, permitted tee turnarounds, increased street grade, and increased building setbacks.

Most of these trade-ups aren’t new, but more AHJs and fire departments are recognizing their value in protecting local infrastructure as well as achieving their community risk reduction (CRR) goals. CRR helps communities identify local risks and prioritize their response with strategic, data-driven investment of resources; NFPA 1300, Standard on Community Risk Assessment and Community Risk Reduction Plan Development, helps guide communities through this process as they assess risk and develop, implement, and evaluate CRR plans. This has a range of implications for fire departments. Communities with sprinklered housing are able to focus firefighting resources on high-risk structures and other critical public safety response activity. When fires occur in sprinklered homes, sprinklers are able to extinguish or control them before the fire department arrives. Fewer responders are necessary to fight those fires, and the hazards they face when they arrive at the fire scene are reduced. Home fires constitute a priority risk in every community, making home fire sprinkler education a vital element of CRR, and NFPA is working with 50 fire departments to develop and test a user-friendly digital tool to aid the process.

Other efforts are underway to support the use of incentives. Three years ago, the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition (HFSC) was awarded a Fire Prevention and Safety grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to develop online resources to educate AHJs and other stakeholders about developer incentives. HFSC’s work started with national surveys to determine awareness about incentives. The results confirmed there was a gap: more than 90 percent of developers didn’t know about incentives, and just 8 percent of fire service respondents offered them. More than half the developers surveyed said they would be interested in installing home fire sprinklers if incentives were offered.

Working with AHJs experienced in negotiating incentives, HFSC developed a comprehensive program that was pilot-tested and reviewed by the fire service. The program has identified successful tactics to identify and reach stakeholders, as well as effective methods to present a convincing argument to install sprinklers in exchange for incentives. Reaching out to the right groups early in the process better positions AJHs to educate, address questions and concerns, and achieve a mutually beneficial agreement. HFSC’s free resources, available at, help AHJs overcome local challenges, identify incentives for each community, and confidently make offers to developers.

Even as progress is made, home fire safety is a work in progress, especially at the grassroots level. Randy Miller, the deputy fire marshal in Camas-Washougal, Washington, has been negotiating home fire sprinkler incentives for nearly 20 years and says it’s unlikely developers will come to you. But that doesn’t mean you have to wait for sprinkler codes to change, either. You’ll likely need some help with the incentives process, which is why we want to get the word out on this effective tactic for achieving public safety.

We know sprinklers dramatically reduce home fire deaths, injuries, and property loss, and that they can do that for generations to come if they’re installed. And no other technology can also protect our firefighters from the growing threat of job-related cancers. Incentives work, and the resources exist to help you get the ball rolling in your jurisdiction. 

LORRAINE CARLI is vice president of Outreach and Advocacy at NFPA and president of the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition. Top photograph:Getty Images