Editor’s Note: The following article was written by the Michigan Association of Home Builders to answer the argument that no cost is too great to save a life.

Michigan, like South Carolina, has been arguing over whether automatic fire sprinkler systems should be mandated in all newly constructed homes. Michigan officials recently delayed implementing the requirement in the International Residential Code that mandates automatic fire sprinklers in new single-family homes. South Carolina, at the urging of Home Builders, also delayed sprinklers until 2014.
The sprinkler argument will come up again, and again the big businesses that want to profit from installing automatic fire sprinklers in new homes will again argue, “what is the price of a life?”
How Much is a Human Life Worth?

When all their other arguments for forcing consumers to buy fire sprinklers fail, sprinkler manufacturers and their allies turn to an emotional question, one intended to shame people into supporting mandatory sprinklers: “How much is a human life worth?”

If the goal is saving lives and not selling sprinklers, the question to answer is “What’s the best way to save the largest number of lives in the most cost-effective manner?” We already know the answer to that question. Working smoke alarms are the most practical, cost-effective method of preventing home fire fatalities.

A 2008 study by the National Fire Protection Association found, “The chances of surviving a reported home fire when working smoke alarms are present are 99.45%.”

That doesn’t mean people don’t die in home fires. Over the seven-year period of 2000-2006, Michigan averaged 109 fatal residential fires a year in its 4.5 million residences. Ninety-three percent of all those fatal fires occurred in residences without working smoke alarms.

Those who want to force homeowners to install fire sprinklers say, “If those homes had both working smoke alarms and sprinklers even more lives would have been saved.” Now the question is how many, and at what cost?

Johns Hopkins University found 75 percent of residential fire deaths could have been prevented by smoke alarms. The Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition says installing both smoke alarms and a fire sprinkler system reduces the risk of death in a home by fire by 82 percent, relative to having neither.

If smoke alarms can reduce residential fire deaths by 75 percent and if having both smoke alarms and a fire sprinkler system can reduce residential fire death by 82 percent over having neither, then mandatory fire sprinklers would only reduce deaths in homes with working smoke alarms by 7 percent.

Michigan averages 1.31 residential fire fatalities per 100,000 homes or 131 fatalities a year. Working smoke alarms could have saved 91 of those 131 lives. The benefit of mandated sprinklers could be the saving of an additional 8.5 lives. But at what cost?

During the seven-year period of 2000-2006, an average of 40,544 new homes were built each year in Michigan. At an average price of $6,000 per home to add fire sprinklers to homes that already have smoke alarms, the price of housing in Michigan would rise by $243,264,000 each year.

Taking away a homebuyer’s choice of how to spend more than $243 million of their money as the sprinkler mandate does, means they lose the ability to use that money in other ways they have decided would better increase the quality of life for themselves and their families. Mandatory sprinklers take away their choice to use that money for a newer, safer home, improved medical care, better insurance, a safer and more fuel-efficient car, education expenses, retirement accounts, or charitable giving.

Every fire death is a tragedy. The solution to reducing these deaths isn’t mandating expensive sprinkler systems. The solution is to make sure every home has working smoke alarms.