Builders, firefighters battle over sprinkler rules

By Dena Potter
The Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. — Firefighters and safety advocates say they could triumph over the "last bastion of America's fire problem" — the family home — if officials require sprinklers in every new home.

However, homebuilders warn it's not that simple and could prove a risky decision during a recession, adding thousands to the cost of homes as the housing market starts to recover.

State and local officials are now wrestling over whether to adopt building codes that would require sprinklers in every new home and townhome starting in 2011 amid intense lobbying from both sides.

The sprinkler debate reached its apex last September when the International Code Council, which sets the minimum safety requirements typically used in 48 states and the District of Columbia, approved the mandate.

The proposal had failed for years, but a pro-sprinkler group paid the way for firefighters and code officials to attend the meeting in Minneapolis, where they voted to adopt the mandate. Homebuilders, who previously paid for anti-sprinkler voting members to attend, cried foul and are trying to reverse the decision.

"We stand on the verge of actually making a significant difference," said Ronny Coleman, a former California fire marshal who pushed through the nation's first sprinkler mandate in San Clemente in the late 1970s and founded the group fighting for the mandate.

He called homes the "last bastion of America's fire problem," where 80 percent of fires occur. Nationwide, about 3,000 people die in home fires each year — but fewer than 2 percent of homes have sprinklers.

There is no uniform method of adopting the residential building codes. In seven states, it's left up to local governments. In others, either the legislature, housing board or state code official makes the call.

The Minnesota-based Residential Fire Safety Institute says 400 localities have passed sprinkler mandates, several going back decades.

Since last September, regulators in Pennsylvania and New Jersey have tentatively approved the mandate. Michigan and Virginia are leaning toward rejecting the codes, but final decisions aren't expected for months.

Meanwhile, homebuilders — traditionally big political donors — have persuaded legislators in more than a dozen states to push bills prohibiting localities from requiring sprinklers. Idaho, North Dakota, Missouri and Texas have approved the bans.

Supporters argue sprinklers save property and lives, including those of firefighters who are at a higher risk in new homes built of lightweight, fast-burning materials. This year, 18 firefighters have died fighting structure fires. Supporters also argue the vast majority of fires are quickly contained by only one sprinkler.

The cost, which can average up to $2.66 per square foot, can be less expensive than cosmetic enhancements like granite countertops or whirlpool tubs. And insurers typically offer discounts between 5 to 15 percent for homes with sprinklers, according to the American Insurance Association.

"Unfortunately, safety doesn't sell," said Steve Muncy, president of the Texas-based American Fire Sprinkler Association.

In Richmond, Va., homebuilders estimate it would cost more than $5,800 to install sprinklers in a 2,000-square-foot home. Many say that would harm lower-income home buyers.

"We don't oppose fire sprinklers, we just want to make sure we aren't leaving folks in those crowded, substandard, really dangerous houses," said John Snook with Habitat for Humanity International, which built or repaired homes for more than 6,100 families last year.

Many say the cost is worth it.

Fire gutted Jimmy Dean's 4,000-square-foot home outside Richmond earlier this year. He doesn't think sprinklers should be required, but he said it's well worth the $14,000 to install sprinklers in his rebuilt home.

"I hope somebody will look into it and try to stave off what we had to do, because if I said it didn't hurt I'd be lying," said Dean, 81, best known for his 1961 country song "Big Bad John" and the sausage brand he sold years ago.

Others argue smoke detectors are less expensive and just as effective in saving lives. A 2008 study published by the National Fire Protection Association says the chances of surviving a fire with working smoke alarms was 99.45 percent.

"When you continue to have these arbitrary requirements that have significant cost increase with no cost benefit, that's essentially making it to where people can't afford the home," said Steve Orlowski with the Washington-based National Association of Home Builders.

Smoke alarms aren't always enough, said Kaaran Mann, whose 18-year-old daughter Lauren Mahon was among seven South Carolina college students who died in a 2007 fire at a beach house in Ocean Isle Beach, N.C.

Six students survived, and several said a smoke alarm woke them with only moments left to escape.

Mann, of Greenville, S.C., has since become an advocate for requiring them in college dorms and homes.

"If people are told these things do not all go off at once, they do not flood your home just because you burn the bacon ... it's an investment I think people would be more than willing to pay," she said.


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