Wash. city approves ordinance on fire sprinklers

Camas is the seventh city in the state to require fire sprinkler systems in all new one- and two-family homes


By Adam Littman
The Columbian

WASHOUGAL, Wash. — When Randy Miller was moving into his new home more than 13 years ago, one must-have for the house was a fire sprinkler system.

“I know the value of what sprinklers provide,” said Miller, the deputy fire marshal at the Camas-Washougal Fire Department. “If I have a choice, I won’t live in a house without them.”

Miller, along with many other high-ranking fire officials in Camas, have spent the last decade-plus pushing to change the city’s municipal code so newly constructed homes are required to have fire sprinklers. At the Camas City Council meeting on April 18, the council unanimously voted to put the ordinance into place.

Camas is the seventh city in the state to require fire sprinkler systems in all new one- and two-family homes, joining Olympia, Dupont, Kenmore, Bonney Lake, Redmond and Tukwila. The ordinance is only for new dwellings. Old houses won’t be required to put them in, even in the event of remodeling.

The idea for the ordinance was first floated to the city council in 2003, but it didn’t pass. Instead, the city decided to waive fire-impact fees for new homes that included a fire sprinkler system. In Camas, the fee is 20 cents per square foot, Miller said. The waived fee led to many residents putting fire sprinklers into their houses. Last year, 215 new homes were built in Camas, and all but one of those homes were built with a fire sprinkler system, said Ron Schumacher, fire marshal for the Camas-Washougal Fire Department.

At the end of last year, there were 7,565 homes in the city, Camas City Administrator Peter Capell said in an email. About 2,000 of those homes have fire sprinklers, Schumacher said.

Camas Mayor Scott Higgins said it feels like the city is adopting “into code what’s already happening in our community.”

Higgins was on the city council back in 2003 when the topic first came up, but he voted against it. At the meeting on April 18, after the ordinance passed, he told Schumacher and Camas-Washougal Fire Chief Nick Swinhart, “You did a great job proving me wrong.”

Reversal of Opinion
Higgins said that the first time the ordinance came to the council, he liked the safety aspect of the sprinkler systems, but didn’t want to make it mandatory for residents. What changed his mind was hearing how many residents opted to put sprinklers in their homes already.

In the past few years, since fire sprinkler systems have become more common in Camas, firefighters have battled three fires in homes with the systems, Miller said. Two of them were controlled by the activation of a single head, and the residents could’ve stayed at those homes the same night if they wanted, he added. The third house had an explosion fire in the basement, triggering multiple heads, which controlled the fire until firefighters arrived on scene. The house was up and running in two or three days, Miller said.

The reason home fire sprinkler systems can be so effective is because they start attacking the fire early.

“A fire sprinkler head activates in what we call the incipient stage of the fire, and therefore it is easy to control or extinguish because the fire does not have a chance to grow in size,” Miller said. “When fire crews arrive to a structure fire in a home where sprinklers do not exist, the fire tends to double in size about every 30 seconds and can reach … temperatures well over 1,000 degrees versus a sprinklered home, where the early head activation occurs when the fire reaches only 155 degrees.”

In Miller’s home, the sprinkler head isn’t visible. It’s hidden with a white cover, which falls off if the temperature reaches 145 degrees. The sprinkler head activates when the room reaches around 155 degrees, and water flows out at a minimum of 13 gallons a minute, Miller said.

Before the council voted at the April 18 meeting, a public hearing was held. Nobody spoke out against the ordinance, but state Rep. Liz Pike, R-Camas; Building Industry Association of Clark County President Tracy Doriot; and Clark County Association of Realtors President John Blom sent a letter to city councilors urging them to reject it.

The three were concerned that the ordinance would exacerbate the affordable housing crisis and “further prevent low- and middle-income families from homeownership.”

The letter said that placing sprinklers in homes could add $6,000 to $10,000 to the cost of a new home. The letter drew response letters from the fire marshal’s office, signed by Schumacher, and the Washington State Association of Fire Marshals, signed by Clark County Fire Marshal Jon Dunaway, who is also president of the association. Both response letters said the letter opposing the ordinance used outdated information.

Schumacher said installing a fire sprinkler in a home costs between $1.25 to $1.35 per square foot. The average size of a home in Camas is around 3,000 square feet, Capell said, which would put the price for a sprinkler system in the range of $3,750 to $4,050. Miller said that when he bought his house, he paid about $3,500 for the system.

At the April 18 meeting, only one person spoke during the public hearing — Mark Sundseth, who moved into a new home in Camas last year and put in a sprinkler system. When going over the insurance for his house, he said he thought it was going to cost a bit more because his home is about 2 miles from the nearest fire station. Instead, the fire sprinkler is helping him with insurance.

“The savings we made from the sprinklers, in less than five years, will allow us to recapture the total cost of the installation in our particular house,” he said at the meeting, adding that he paid a little more than $2,000 for his system.

Miller said he thinks sprinklers should be standardized in all homes moving forward, and said they make homes safer than having just a smoke detector.

“It’s like having a firefighter live in your house 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, but you don’t have to feed it,” he said.

It also makes it safer for first responders called into a burning home, because the sprinkler has already started containing the fire, he added.

“It’s a proven technology,” Miller said. “It’s time to provide our citizens with life-saving systems that can really make a difference.”

Copyright 2016 The Columbian 

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