Fire sprinklers in townhouses may become mandatory in Spokane

A fierce battle is shaping up between pro- and anti-residential sprinkler groups in this push for sprinklers in houses with a common wall; the code council will hold a public hearing Sept. 11

By Nicholas Deshais
The Spokesman-Review

SPOKANE, Wash. — Dan Shier is a sprinkler evangelist, and for good reason.

He's been installing fire suppression systems in businesses for 43 years and is the lead designer for Inland Empire Fire Protection. His son, Marty, is a career firefighter with Spokane County Fire District 10.

And, not least, is his experience in September 1993. While his family slept, their vacation cabin went up in flames near Republic in Ferry County, because someone left a candle burning. Shier awoke to smoke and fire, and he, his wife, Judy, and three of their kids escaped with their lives. Two of their daughters, 7-year-old Chelsea and 12-year-old Amanda, did not.

"They died of smoke inhalation before the fire got to them. They never woke up and not a day goes by that I'm not thankful for that," he said. "The fact is that fires do occur, whether it be in an old home or a new home. From a realistic point of view, we should sprinkler everything. But that's not practical."

Last week, Shier spoke to the Spokane City Council in support of a proposed state rule that would require a sprinkler system in new townhouses, which are individual houses placed side by side with a common wall.

The proposal, which is making its way through a process at the State Building Code Council, was vehemently opposed by the City Council, which passed a nonbinding resolution against it by a 6-1 vote, with only Councilwoman Candace Mumm casting a no vote.

On Sept. 11, the code council will be in Spokane to hold a public hearing on the rule.

Not everybody holds the same views as Shier, including Jim Frank, president of Greenstone Corp., which is developing Kendall Yards in West Central Spokane, Eagle Ridge in Latah Valley and other housing developments in the region.

Frank said the proposed rule creates little added safety but comes with a real cost. Homebuyers would see upward of $15,000 added to a 1,500-square-foot townhome to cover the cost of a sprinkler system, Frank said. He noted the rule will affect projects such as his near downtown Spokane more than companies building single-family homes on the edge of town. About 80 percent of the residences in Kendall Yards are townhomes and the price ranges from $180,000 to $400,000. Currently, Frank said, Greenstone builds a "two-hour" firewall between townhouses -- basically 10 sheets of drywall with a central airspace.

"I would rather have a two-hour firewall than a sprinkling system, given the choice," Frank said, adding that the firewall also provides soundproofing between units.

Frank condemns the proposed rule as "simplistic" and another step toward requiring sprinklers in all new residences, including single-family homes built on 10-acre lots. He said if state officials were truly concerned with safety, they would ban vinyl siding on houses and discourage rural homebuilding.

"If the whole goal is stop people from dying, we should stop building houses in forested areas far from any fire station," Frank told members of the City Council earlier this month at an informal study session.

Dave Kokot, chairman of the State Building Code Council and a fire protection engineer with the Spokane Fire Department, said weighing sprinklers against firewalls was wrongheaded and missed the point about not just saving lives, but also minimizing damage.

"Once a sprinkler activates, it controls the smoke and fire in one to two minutes," he said. Most residential sprinklers "pop" at 155 degrees.

Kokot said, "With a sprinkler, there will be damage to my home but I won't lose it. I will keep my home and save my possessions."

Kokot said sprinkler systems can be installed for $1.50 per square foot, or about $2,250 for a 1,500-square-foot home.

Michael Cathcart, government affairs director with the Spokane Home Builders Association, said the proposed rule would discourage development near the city's core. Like Frank, Cathcart said the rule punishes the type of dense, infill development sought by some urban homebuyers, the type of housing encouraged in the city's long-term growth and development plan.

Cathcart also pointed to numbers from the National Fire Protection Association showing that the survivability rate in a fire increased by two-tenths of a percent if a home added sprinklers in addition to fire alarms.

"That's a very, very small number for that cost" of installing sprinklers, Cathcart said. "Again, there's nothing preventing a homebuyer from asking to have fire sprinklers installed."

At Monday's City Council meeting, Councilman Mike Allen, who sponsored the resolution, at one point directed his comments at Shier, saying the sprinkler debate would never be won with emotional appeals, so the council should look at numbers-based arguments.

"We can never win the emotional battle regarding this particular subject. We as policymakers have to look at ... the cost benefit," he said. "We have to take the emotion out of it."

Shier disagreed.

"If you've never experienced the tragedy of a fire, with or without fatalities, you really can't speak to it," he said, returning to his family's tragedy. "If that had been a sprinkled home, without a doubt, that fire would just have been an inconvenience. Fire sprinklers do save lives. All the evidence is there. My question is, what price do you put on human safety?"


(c)2015 The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Wash.)

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