Wis. fire chiefs oppose easing of home sprinkler rules

The proposal would halt nationally required expansion of devices used to prevent fires and electrocutions in new building projects

By Julian Emerson

EAU CLAIRE, Wis. — Proposed changes to state regulations that would reduce requirements for electrical protections and sprinklers in new homes, college dorms, hotels and other buildings fly in the face of reason, state firefighters and building inspectors said during a public hearing Tuesday in Eau Claire. 

The proposal would halt nationally required expansion of devices used to prevent fires and electrocutions in new building projects. The state Department of Safety and Professional Services, which sponsored the hearing, backs those code changes, saying they are too expensive for builders and homebuyers. 

The proposal would require sprinkler systems in buildings with 20 or more units. Currently, buildings with three or more units must have the systems. It also would halt the expansion of electrical fire and electrocution prevention devices in new construction.  

“The simple fact is sprinklers work,” Robert Ugaste, Wauwatosa fire chief and president of the Wisconsin State Fire Chiefs Association, said during the hearing at HSHS Sacred Heart Hospital. “I don’t understand why the administration would want to remove that regulation.”

Other fire chiefs agreed, saying reducing construction related costs at the expense of people’s safety is the wrong move. They said eliminating ground fault circuit interrupters, or GFCIs, and arc fault circuit interrupters, or AFCIs, would boost the number of electrical fires and electrocutions statewide. Those devices detect harmful electrical situations and shut down dangerous situations by preventing electrical fires and electrocutions.

“This is a step backward,” Eau Claire fire Chief Chris Bell said. “We have been working toward making fires occur less frequently, and this would mark a step backward in terms of safety.”

Not everyone at the hearing opposed the proposed changes. Brad Boycks, Wisconsin Builders Association executive director, said WBA supports proposed building code changes that include many alterations besides the sprinklers and electrical measures. 

“We believe this strikes the right balance between safety and affordabil-ity,” he said. “Those requirements have a cost to them, and affordability is a big issue for people looking to buy homes.”

Thanks to improved technology, fires have become less common in Eau Claire and elsewhere, Bell said. But the number of emergency medical services calls has risen and continues to climb, he said, and now makes up about 90 percent of his department’s calls. 

Last year fire and EMS calls in Eau Claire totaled about 8,700, and this year that figure is projected to top 9,000. As the department deals with higher EMS response numbers, changes that could boost the number of fire calls amid a tight budget would prove challenging, Bell said. 

“I would rather move more of our resources toward the EMS side of things than spend limited resources on more fires,” he said. 

The proposed changes are scheduled to be discussed at other public hearings around the state and may be forwarded to the state Legislature for a vote. Wisconsin’s Electrical Advisory Committee recently recommended full expansion of AFCIs and GFCIs to ensure the state is in compliance with current national electrical code rules. 

The Department of Safety and Professional Services tried to eliminate AFCI and GFCI requirements in 2012. But the attempt failed after a strong reaction against it by state firefighters and the electrical industry.  

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