In 2001, Bob Wilcox, then fire chief of the Matteson Fire Department in Illinois, was preparing to build a new home with fire sprinklers. "I wanted to protect my family,” he says. “[Sprinklers are] there 24/7 in case something happens. It's like life insurance." The installation, however, wasn’t just for his family; Wilcox was also laying the groundwork to upgrade the fire code in his rapidly growing suburban community.
In March 2002, Wilcox opened his new home to the public, elected officials, building inspectors, and area fire departments to view the sprinklers before the drywall was installed. Outside the home, the Illinois Fire Inspectors Association's fire sprinkler demonstration trailer provided proof of the value of fire sprinklers.
Installing fire sprinklers in his home was one phase in Wilcox’s plan to prepare the public for his code-upgrade proposal. Housing developments that had longstanding plot approvals based on an older code became a point of contention. Wilcox recognized the practicality of a compromise, which eventually saved the ordinance.
The requirement passed in 2004, making Matteson the 15th Illinois community to pass a sprinkler requirement. By 2008, the village already had 800 single-family homes and 600 townhomes protected with sprinklers in accordance with NFPA 13D, Installation of Sprinkler Systems in One- and Two-Family Dwellings and Manufactured Homes, and NFPA 13R, Installation of Sprinkler Systems in Low-Rise Residential Occupancies.
Shortly thereafter, Wilcox retired from the Matteson Fire Department but kept sprinklers at the forefront when becoming the fire chief of the Park Forest Fire Department. He again used trailer demonstrations and live burn/sprinkler demonstrations to help educate board members. In 2008, Park Forest become the 55th Illinois community with a fire sprinkler requirement.
Wilcox made sure to address any potential issues during his advocacy efforts, including poor plan submittals as well as inspection and testing details. He also utilized the free resources produced by the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition and NFPA’s Fire Sprinkler Initiative.
In 2013, Wilcox retired from the fire service. The sprinkler ordinances he strived for continue to thrive thanks to the culture he left behind that stresses the importance of educating the public and elected officials. Now, Battalion Chief Sam Anello monitors and nurtures the progress of the ordinance in Matteson, and Fire Marshal Mike Wheeler has taken over that task in Park Forest. They continue moving forward, one sprinkler-protected home at a time.
This post was written by Tom Lia, executive director of the Northern Illinois Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting legislation, raising public awareness, and educating code officials and government policymakers on home fire sprinklers. Lia regularly offers his perspective on sprinkler activities taking place in his state and elsewhere.