Firefighters douse report suggesting easing sprinkler regs

They support expanding, rather than loosening, the state fire code to require sprinklers in the one- and two-family homes that are now exempted

The Eagle-Tribune

NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — The fire at Lawrence Kady's home on Stephan Avenue in Haverhill last month did more than destroy his home.

Also destroyed was Kady's faith in sprinkler systems.

His sprinklers  installed at a cost of about $15,000 when Kady built the home with his father-in-law as part of a larger subdivision in the 1990s  failed to go off, allowing the fire to burn through the house until a neighbor called the fire department.

Damage to the house and the family's possessions totaled up to $600,000, said Kady, who was vacationing at the beach with his family when the fire broke out, possibly in the wiring.

“I had a false sense of security,” he said. “You'd think with sprinklers there, no problem.”

The failed sprinklers put Kady at the center of a debate about whether to relax a state regulation requiring them in new residential buildings of three units or more. The change would require them in buildings of at least seven units, which advocates say would shave thousands of dollars from housing costs without significantly compromising safety.

The proposal has divided the firefighting community from the building community and the board that writes the fire code in Massachusetts, which in May received a study concluding that sprinklers in smaller buildings are not cost effective.

“Onerous and costly code requirements too often have a negative ripple effect,” including increasing construction costs or causing owners to take their units off the market, said the study, written by Mike Guigli, a technical director with the state’s Department of Public Safety who did the study for the department's Board of Building Regulations and Standards. “Thus, if the life-safety benefit does not justify the cost, then it is the responsibility of the BBRS to explore alternatives such as reducing or eliminating the requirement (for sprinklers in smaller buildings).”

Guigli estimated that installing a sprinkler system in a new three-unit apartment building costs up to about $27,000, including $15,000 for hardware and up to $12,000 for the separate water supply system that municipalities often require, which he said makes the state's already unaffordable housing market even less affordable. He noted that just 2,782 of the 2.5 million Americans who died in 2010  a little more than 1 in 1,000  were killed by fire or smoke, citing figures from the federal Centers for Disease Control. Some of those killed by smoke or fire died outside their homes, including at work or in vehicles.

Guigli also cited estimates from the federal Environmental Protection Agency that 21,000 Americans die annually from exposure to radon in their homes, equal to about 7.5 times the number who died in all fires in 2010. Radon is a naturally occurring carcinogen. 

So far this year in Massachusetts, 51 people have died in fires.

Guigli's report sparked a firestorm among firefighters, whose warnings have been fed by fires in an apartment building in Lowell that killed seven people in July and at an apartment building in Lawrence on Oct. 21 that killed 4- and 9-year-old step-brothers. Both buildings were built before 1997, when the BBRS began requiring sprinklers in new buildings of three or more units.

“Granted, that was an older building and there was no requirement for sprinklers,” said David LaFond, the New England regional manager for the National Fire Sprinkler Association, referring to the Lawrence fire. “Those kids went into a back bedroom. Firefighters were beaten back. If a sprinkler head activated, that would have put some water down and possibly given the firefighters enough time to rescue those kids.”

The association is a membership organization that includes local fire departments and the manufacturers of sprinkler systems.

John Marsh, Lawrence's acting fire chief, said there is no way to tell whether step-brothers Jeancarlos Marrero and Kelvin Medina would have survived the fire at their Kingston Street home if the building had sprinklers. But he said he supports expanding, rather than loosening, the state fire code to require sprinklers in the one- and two-family homes that are now exempted. He said sprinklers add relatively little cost to the overall price of a new home, and he said a savings could be realized by the staff cuts at fire departments that might result if homes are made more fireproof. 

The National Fire Protection Association, a non-profit organization that helps develop fire codes and standards, responded to Guigli's study with a study of its own showing that people in buildings with sprinklers are 83 percent more likely to survive a fire than people in buildings without them. The association recommends sprinkler systems in all newly built residential buildings, including one- and two-family homes, which several states already require.

Guigli responded that the NFPA study is “clouded with qualifications.” Among them, he said it did not consider fires that did not set off a sprinkler system because they were too small or occurred outside the sprinkled area of a building.

Guigli also suggested many homeowners don't bother maintaining their sprinklers. 

LaFond, the regional manager for the Sprinkler Association and a former fire chief in Holyoke and interim chief in Chelsea, said maintaining a residential sprinkler system involves not much more than making sure the heads haven't been painted over and checking that the pump is working.

“Here's what infuriates fire professionals,” LaFond said. “They're saying not enough people die by fire in Massachusetts (to justify requiring sprinklers in smaller residential buildings). We've asked, what's the number? How many people have to die? They're charged with protecting people with the code. They're not doing it.”

Terrel Harris, a spokesman for the Board of Building Regulations and Standards, said that despite the study, there is little support on the board right now for rolling back the sprinkler standard to exempt residential buildings between three and six units.

“It's an idea,” Harris said. “They're trying to find cost-saving measures to keep homes affordable. That's all it is. This is just one of who knows how many ideas they're throwning out.”

In the meantime, Kady, the Haverhill homeowner who lost much of his home when his sprinkler system failed last month, said the city's fire department is requiring him to install sprinklers in his rebuilt home. Local fire departments can require sprinklers on a case-by-case basis even in homes where the state does not otherwise require them. 

Haverhill Deputy Fire Chief William Laliberty could not be reached for comment.

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