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Firefighters, homebuilders clash over sprinkler installation codes

Firefighters say the sprinkler requirement is needed and that smoke detectors aren’t always enough

Star Tribune

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — Firefighters gathered at the State Capitol to extinguish an attempt to prohibit the mandatory installation of sprinkler systems in new homes.

By next year, state building codes will require new homes larger than 4,500 square feet to be built with their own sprinkler systems.

Firefighters, noting that at least 21 Minnesotans have died this year in home fires, say the sprinkler requirement is needed and that smoke detectors aren’t always enough. St. Paul Fire Chief Tim Butler said that Nicole Ann Ritzer, 50, of Lakeland, was the latest to perish in a home fire. He said the home’s smoke alarm was going off when firefighters found her body.

“The firefighters here and the firefighters that have responded to this weekend’s tragedy have to bear the brunt of these times,” said Butler, flanked by more than two dozen firefighters. “We have yet to see a Realtor or a builder come in and offer their sympathies or say how safe their house was or how effective smoke alarms were at these tragedies.”

Advocates of the ban say that forced installation is unnecessary and expensive government overreach. They note that deaths from home fires have been dropping for more than 30 years. They say that none of the fires occurred in new homes outfitted with the interconnected smoke detectors mandated more than a decade ago.

“The big issue of saving people’s lives is having that early warning and a clear path to get out,” said Shawn Nelson, president of the Builders Association of the Twin Cities. “Putting additional protection in our safest houses isn’t sound policy. It’s not where the problem exists.”

Opponents of the mandate have tried to eliminate it before. Bills in 2011 and 2012 banning mandatory sprinklers passed the Legislature only to be vetoed by Gov. Mark Dayton.

“I take very seriously the concerns which fire safety professionals have expressed about the safety of home residents, their properties, and the lives of the men and women who courageously risk their lives to fight those fires,” Dayton wrote in his 2012 letter explaining the veto.

This year, a measure banning mandatory sprinklers made its way into the Senate’s bonding bill. That drew ire from lawmakers at Tuesday’s Senate Finance committee hearing, which was closely watched by firefighters and homebuilders alike.

Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, said rolling the measure into the bonding bill holds lawmakers hostage by forcing them to vote for it in order to fund the projects in their own districts.

“This has nothing to do with how we spend bonding dollars at all,” said Dibble. “It’s inserting a highly controversial poison pill that’s hotly contested on the floor into a bill with which we’ve been able to build some consensus. I don’t know why we would go down this path. ” His attempt to remove the measure failed in committee.

Capital Investment Committee Chair Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, defended the ban.

“We have upward of literally hundreds of millions of dollars of housing money,” he said. “When we look at the additional cost some of these sprinklers add into the cost of housing, it does have a connection to what we’re doing here.”

Nelson said that sprinkler systems start at $9,000 for a 4,500-square-foot home. He said that limiting the systems to homes that size or larger affects only about a third of homes in the metro, but could be a starting point to all new homes. He said contractors would be happy to install a system if a homeowner requested it. But, he said, no one ever does.

“Given the price, people should be able to choose for themselves,” he said.

Firefighters say the cost amounts to 1 percent of a newly built home, or an extra $14 a month over the life of a mortgage.

“You buy a $20,000 passenger car, that’s the same as buying a seat belt and car seat for your kid in the back seat,” Butler said. “That’s minimal, and it’s time to move this standard forward.”

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