The Bend City Council approved last week without any discussion the Bend Fire Department’s plan for responding to fires.

Overall, it’s not a controversial document. It’s a review of fire risks and how the department will respond. But buried in that document is a debate over safety and affordability that seems worthy of, at least, a council discussion.

It’s residential fire sprinklers. Should Bend require them for new homes?

Residential fire sprinkler systems could save lives. About 2,500 people die a year in residential fires in the U.S. Residential fire sprinkler systems likely would not have saved all of them. It would almost certainly help.

The systems are designed to protect lives in the homes, not as much to protect the structure. They pour water in to keep the temperature down, reduce the carbon dioxide level and keep the home from reaching the flashover point — basically when everything in a room ignites. All those things give people more opportunity to get out of a home and reduce the danger for firefighters when they arrive.

The sprinklers are typically installed in the living spaces of a home — not in closets or garages. They can activate based on heat. For instance, some activate when a home reaches 155 degrees. They can be installed as a separate water system or incorporated into a home’s regular piping. There is usually a control valve outside the home to turn it off.

As you might guess, the issue is the cost. There are simply too many variables to guess what sprinklers would add to the cost of a new home in Bend. But various estimates across the country are usually around $1 a square foot. So that might be $2,500 added to the cost of a new 2,500 square-foot home. Is it worth it? Are smoke alarms and the other fire safety requirements for new homes enough?

One way to answer those questions is to look at the Bend Fire Department’s approach. It is not pushing the city to make residential fire sprinklers mandatory for new homes. That doesn’t mean Larry Medina, deputy chief of fire prevention, wouldn’t like to see the sprinklers in every Bend home. He is trying to get more builders to understand how the cost can be lowered by installing them for an entire subdivision at the time of construction. Should Bend be doing more? Is that something Bend councilors should debate?

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