Live fire demonstration gives firsthand look at how sprinklers work

Jeanette Kendall TimesNewspapers
Pam Elliott, left, and Justina Page spoke prior to a live fire demonstration by Common Voices. The event, which featured a sprinkler versus a non-sprinkler fire demonstration, was part of a fire safety day.

Justina Page and Pam Elliott know firsthand what it’s like to experience a house fire.

Page, of Houston, Texas, survived third degree burns on more than 50 percent of her body and lost a child in a fire, and Elliott, of North Carolina, was burned in a fire at the age of 5.

The two women were at Embassy Suites in East Peoria April 29 with Common Voices, a coalition that strives to create a fire safe America.

Page has been involved with Common Voices since 2007 and Elliot since 2009.

“I was hunted down and grabbed,” Page said with a laugh. 

Page was introduced to Common Voices through Amy Acton, the director at The Phoenix Society for burn survivors.

“I had done some speaking there and I had attended the World Burn Conferences,” Page said. “She felt I would be a good advocate for the fire sprinklers.”

Elliott also knew Acton through The Phoenix Society.

“I had done some lobbying in Washington with the American Burn Association and Amy (Acton) was unable to attend a Common Voices event in Washington and asked me if I would go in her place. After that they invited me to join the group as well,” Elliot said.

Elliott said that when she was 5 years old, the home she lived in burned to the ground.

“I was the only one burned in the fire. They think it was electrical. This was in 1959 and there were light bulbs that just hung down with little switches on them that hung down over the stairwell in our two-frame country house and my bed was in the corner of that,” Elliott said.

Elliott’s grandmother was downstairs and heard some noise. When she came to the stairwell, it was blazing.

“She came up to the second story level and a passerby actually came by and got me out,” she said.

Elliott was in the hospital for three months initially and then nine more months.

Page said she was in a tragic fire.

“It was me and my husband and our six sons in a very tragic 1999 house fire. We lost our 22-month old twin son at the scene. Myself and the other twin were severely injured. All my boys were injured with first and second degree burns,” Page said.

The report on the cause of the fire came back as undetermined, but Page said her husband did his own investigation and believes it was faulty wiring in the attic.

Both Page and Elliott said that fire sprinklers should absolutely be mandated for homes.

“It’s like having a little fireman in your house,” Page said.

Smoke detectors are not good enough, they said.

“They don’t put out fires,” Page said.

“It’s like having a seat belt without the air bag,” Elliott said. “It’s just a no-brainer. We have the technology to prevent fires, to put them out and to decrease property loss by 97 percent and to decrease home fire deaths by 82 percent.” 

“With the pain we’ve experienced and the type of injuries we had to sustain and all of the after surgeries, that these things aren’t mandated, it should be common sense,” Page said.

Elliott said the fire changed her life. Coming from a family of faith, she said her grandmother said the fire happened for a purpose. 

“You don’t exactly understand that purpose when people are staring at you all the time. So, for me, having grown up and kind of gone through those issues, I just realize that there is purpose in tragedy, and hopefully, it’s preventing other tragedies from happening,” Elliott said.

Page has written a book about her experience. It’s called “The Circle of Fire — In the Midst of the Ashes an Ember of Hope Flickered.”

Page said she is glad to be a part of the education process in East Peoria.

“Everyone feels like it’s not going to happen to me and you don’t wait until it happens to you to get involved. You don’t want to wait until it happens to you. You want to be proactive.”

The women stood in the parking lot at the Embassy Suites to watch a live controlled burn demonstration. Two wooden units were situated on the lot. Inside, they had the same contents — two chairs, a TV, a curtain, a table stand and a lamp. One had a sprinkler system and one did not. The fire was started in each the same way.

Thomas Lia, executive director of the Northern Illinois Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board, talked during the demonstration, which featured a flashover fire. 

East Peoria Fire Chief William Darin said a flashover occurs when all the gases get to a certain temperature, and it’s like an explosion. 

“The whole room or the area that’s on fire becomes totally involved,” he said.

“Nothing will survive a flashover, not even our firemen in protective gear,” Lia said.

Lia said he wants people to understand the speed and response of a quick response residential fire sprinkler compared to a commercial fire sprinkler.

“It operates four times quicker than a commercial sprinkler,” he said. “At 155 degrees it will operate and it will put out 13-15 gallons in a minute.”

Darin said residential sprinklers are also cheaper to install than commercial sprinkler systems. He said it costs 1.5 percent of the overall cost of the home to install the sprinklers. 

As for those who have fears of a sprinkler going off due to burnt toast, Darin said that the heat has to be about 155 degrees before the sprinkler would activate, and only those sprinklers near the fire go off, not all of them at once.

Before the fires were lit, Lia said, “I want you to picture your home in your mind. Picture the hallways. Picture the windows. Picture your escape routes ... how your house is laid out. As you see this fire today, I want you to picture where all this heat and smoke is going to go. Is it going to block your escape?”

The simulated candle fires were started in each unit using no accelerants. A little smoke began after 15 seconds. 

“You’re sleeping and you don’t know there’s a fire yet. The fire department doesn’t know there’s a fire,” Lia said.

A smoke detector began beeping at 26 seconds.

“Now you take your appropriate action. What would you do? Roll out of bed, go look for your loved ones?” Lia said.

At 45 seconds, the fire had climbed up the wall.

“Now if this was the front room downstairs all the smoke and heat is coming up to your bedroom area,” Lia said.

Flames were over the ceiling at 1 minute.

At 1 minute and 13 seconds, Lia said if a resident was not out of the room, they would be in big trouble. At 1 minute and 30 seconds, flashover occurred.

Then, breaking glass was audible as the TV exploded.

At 2 minutes, East Peoria firefighters who attended the controlled burn, extinguished the fire.

During the fire on the unit with the sprinkler system, it activated at 30 seconds and was extinguished at about 45 seconds.

As a fire chief, Darin recommends putting sprinklers in a home.

“They’ll definitely save lives. There’s a track record over 150 years that sprinklers have been successful. In the last 10-15 years, they have been becoming popular in homes,” Darin said.

Lia said older codes before 2006 did not require sprinkler protection. 

Currently laws on having sprinklers in homes vary from state to state and from city to city. Ninety some cities in Illinois mandate sprinklers in homes, Darin said.

“The Illinois state fire marshal is trying to get the rules changed so that would be mandated, but that’s held up by the General Assembly,” Darin said.

Over time, Darin said sprinklers will be like other technology and laws that took root, such as seat belts, air bags and smoke detectors.

Darin referred to the stories of Elliott and of Page losing her child in a fire.

“That really is a sad story,” he said, adding that these death may be preventable in the future if legislation is passed requiring homes to install sprinklers.

“I don’t think it will happen overnight,” he said.