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Fire officials: Sprinkler systems curb destruction in blazing apartments

In nearly identical fires, sprinklers prevented over $1M in damages 262-513-2651

WAUKESHA — In two seemingly identical apartment fires — both occurred late at night from smoldering cigarettes that weren’t put out completely before they were tossed aside — had drastically different outcomes because only one had a fire suppression sprinkler system, according to Waukesha’s assistant fire chief.

Half of a building was destroyed and residents are still without homes after a fire ignited from poorly discarded smoking materials on a balcony at Rivercrest Apartments on West St. Paul Avenue late last month. Investigators and the building owner are still assessing the damage’s cost, but the damaged portion will need to be entirely rebuilt, officials say.

Another fire at Maple Village Apartments in March also sprung from smoking materials, but was extinguished almost immediately by a fire sprinkler system that’s now required by state and local ordinances in all new multifamily residential buildings with three or more units, said Waukesha Assistant Fire Chief Joseph Hoffman.

“Sprinkler systems work and they work well,” Hoffman said, adding that the damages at Maple Village totaled about $8,000 while damages at Rivercrest will easily amount to between $500,000 and $750,000.

Hoffman said structure fires immediately put out by heat-sensing sprinklers don’t receive the same kind of attention from the public as destructive, devastating fires in buildings without sprinklers.

Residents were allowed back into Maple Village within hours of the fire, while those at Rivercrest have been displaced for nearly a month and will have to completely rebuild their lives, Waukesha Fire Marshall Brian Charlesworth said.

Due to a city ordinance adopted in 2002, Rivercrest could be required to include a sprinkler system when it is repaired, Charlesworth said.

Sprinkler requirements

Waukesha adopted a ordinance in 2002 that requires all new residential buildings with three or more units to include sprinkler systems, Charlesworth said. Any apartments built before 2002 did not have to retroactively implement the systems,


Between $500,000 and $750,000 in damage was done at Rivercrest Apartments last month after a fire started on a second-floor balcony. Fire officials say damage could have been avoided with a sprinkler system.

Photos courtesy of Waukesha Fire Department

Extensive fire damage was avoided at Maple Village in March after a poorly discarded cigarette ignited the balcony but was suppressed by the sprinkler system.


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so about two-thirds of the roughly 1,200 multifamily residential buildings in Waukesha do not have sprinklers, he said.

According to a National Fire Protection Association study published July 2017, the death rate per 1,000 reported fires nationwide is 87 percent lower in properties with sprinklers than in properties without. Injury rates were 27 percent lower for residents and 67 percent lower for firefighters in buildings with sprinkler systems.

Waukesha first adopted a sprinkler ordinance in 1996, requiring residential buildings with eight or more units to have sprinklers, which was later tightened to three. Wisconsin followed many other states in mandating the systems, which was then unified in 2013 under Act 270 based of the International Fire Code. According to Martin King, Wisconsin state coordinator for the National Fire Sprinkler Association, the systems have been around for over 100 years and were commonly used in large factories and theaters.

King said the association does outreach to building inspectors, fire inspectors, insurance companies and residents to talk about codes that require sprinklers and have been adopted across the country.

“A lot of the problem is that there’s no news when a sprinkler system saves the day,” he said. “But when you have a fire through the roof and a loss of things, that makes the news.”

King said sprinkler systems save people and businesses from all kinds of losses: time, life, belongings and money. A sprinkler system generally costs about 2 percent of a new construction, he said.

Wisconsin is the least restrictive when it comes to requiring fire sprinkler systems, King said. The state has backpedaled in the past because they didn’t want to put a burden on businesses by requiring the extra cost when building, he said.

“The problem is that there hasn’t been a cost/benefit analysis done by the state seeing how much safety we have taken away from these buildings,” he said.

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