Pa. firefighters celebrate residential sprinkler requirement

A measure to delay the enforcement of the rule died; all new single-family homes and duplexes starting Jan. 1 must have sprinklers

By Christina Kauffman
The York Dispatch

YORK, Pa. — York County firefighters are celebrating a requirement to install sprinklers in all new single-family homes and duplexes starting Jan. 1.

The state adopted the construction code regulations late last year. Under the provisions, builders are mandated to install sprinkler systems in all new residential construction as of Jan. 1, 2011.

A measure to delay the enforcement of the rule died in the state House Monday — the last voting day of the year — when members failed to vote on it, so builders must comply after the new year.

Builders react: Steve Kohr, president of the York County Builders Association, said builders are disappointed and will continue rushing to have permits for pending projects approved this year.

"If permits are given before January, they don't need (sprinklers)," he said. "Builders are trying to get as much done as possible before it goes into effect."

He said smoke detectors, which the Builders Association is giving away free, make more sense than sprinklers because most fire victims die of smoke inhalation.

Sprinklers are unnecessary and will hurt the already ailing housing industry, he said. Installation will add about $10,000 to the cost of every home at a time when sales are lagging, Kohr said.

"Prices will increase," he said. "We're still hoping they'll take (the requirement) out of the books completely."

He said the requirement is just a way for corporations who sell the systems to profit.

In favor: Nationwide, firefighters have rallied in favor of sprinkler requirements.

Joe Stevens, chief of Union Fire Co. in Manchester, said firefighters are glad Pennsylvania's rule will remain intact.

Recent high-profile fatal fires point to the need for greater fire protection, he said.

"Just look at what has been going on around us in the past couple of months," he said. "The addition of sprinklers to residential buildings is a good thing for us. We can only go so far with smoke detectors. We try to educate people to have them in their homes, but we can't have (firefighters) coming out every six months to remind people to change the batteries."

He's frequently called to fires where the residents didn't replace dead batteries, or removed them for use in a toy or remote control, Stevens said.

The Manchester area is quickly being developed — at least, it was before the recession — and part of the problem is the less-expensive modern construction method, he said.

"They're using lightweight construction, smaller lumber, not nailing as much together, and using more glues," he said. "We've really gotten away from the quality construction we used to have years ago. Those homes go up quickly. It's all pre-fab."

The danger: The roofs and floors collapse sooner than older construction, putting firefighters at risk of injury or death, he said.

He said the added expense is "going to be made up in what you save on fire insurance over time," and he doubts the builders will be able to overturn the requirement.

"Once you put safety measures into place, I think it's rather difficult to pull that back," he said. "I'm certain they'll try, though."

Rep. Ron Miller, R-Jacobus, said he would reconsider the legislation if it's discussed early in the year.

"I think a one-year delay to take a better look at it was warranted, but once it goes into effect it'll be harder. ... It's basically going to go into effect and there are pluses and minuses to it."

His main concern was the added cost of a new home.

"You increase the cost of housing when housing is in a decline, it probably goes deeper in decline," he said.

New construction adds jobs, which are needed in the current economy, he said.

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