By Robert P. Mader
Of contractor's staff
ROCHESTER, N. Y. — Proponents of residential fire sprinklers are cheered by an International Code Council Code Development Committee meeting here in May that nearly resulted in residential fire sprinklers being included in the International Residential Code. A majority of attendees, 56%, voted in favor of residential sprinklers, but a two-thirds super majority was required.
"We saw an unprecedented level of support for residential fire sprinklers," announced the IRC Fire Sprinkler Coalition, a group formed this year to lobby for sprinklers in homes.
"Our level of support in Rochester was nothing short of astounding," said Ronny J. Coleman, former California state fire marshal. "I've been a proponent of residential sprinklers for many years, and to see what the IRC Fire Sprinkler Coalition has accomplished in less than six months to rally this cause gives me great confidence in the future of residential sprinklers. It's now clear to me that the question is no longer if we'll have a national requirement for residential sprinklers, but when, and I think it will happen soon."
While residential sprinkler supporters technically lost this round, proponents will be working to get sprinklers approved in 18 months at the next ICC committee hearing, said Jeffrey M. Shapiro, president of International Code Consultants in Austin, Texas, and the founder of the IRC Fire Sprinkler Coalition.
The ICC is working on its 2009 code, Shapiro explained, with each code update occupying a three-year cycle. During that cycle, two hearings are held 18 months apart at which ICC members can get the code changed. The Rochester hearing was part of the 18-month cycle.
"It's more than a moral victory," Shapiro said. "It's a victory compared with where we have been for a long time. Even though we were not able to change the code, we made a significant statement that residential fire sprinklers will find their way into all new-home construction."
During the 18-month cycle, Shapiro explained, the Code Development Committee reviews proposed code changes, hears public testimony and makes recommendations to the membership to either approve or disapprove a code change. Those committee recommendations are published, members review them and, if they disagree, they send comments and appear at a second public hearing, which is what took place in Rochester.
The first meeting in the 18-month period was in Orlando, Fla., where the Code Development Committee considered the sprinkler proposal and recommended disapproval. The committee disapproved this proposed change to require approved automatic sprinkler systems for several reasons, it said in its published comments.
"The issue of cold weather and freezing of the systems was a concern," the committee said. "The cost of labor to install and then maintain the system was a concern. Increase of cost and demands on local infrastructure as well. Appendix P [which references fire sprinklers as an option] is an option that is available for anyone that wishes to adopt and enforce that appendix. Any code change to bring sprinklers into the code text needs to have a provision to delete Appendix P and this proposal did not."
That outcome was not a surprise, Shapiro said, because half the seats on the IRC Code Development Committee are appointees of sprinkler opponent the National Association of Home Builders.
Many ICC members filed public comments asking that sprinklers be approved. According to ICC code change rules, members can keep something out of the code with a simple majority vote. If they want to add something new to the code, however, it requires a two-thirds majority vote.
The next meeting of the committee will be in Palm Desert, Cal if., Shapiro said, and the NAHB appointees are not expected to break ranks and vote for sprinklers. It is realistic, however, to expect that the members of ICC will override the committee at the next hearing in September 2008 in Minneapolis.
In the meantime, the IRC Fire Sprinkler Coalition will spend its time educating ICC members about sprinklers and some of the misrepresentations made by sprinkler opponents, Shapiro said. One misrepresentation is that smoke alarms are sufficient. A pair of news releases from the U.S. Fire Administration and the National Fire Protection Association debunked data NAHB had used for the core of their argument but, unfortunately, the information became available right before the Rochester hearings, too late to let ICC voters know that the data NAHB was quoting was incorrect.
Builders may be softening their position, although it's hard to tell that from official statements coming from NAHB, said Peg Paul, executive director of the educational group Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition. HFSC has disseminated educational materials at the International Builders Show and at the National Association of Realtors convention.
"One-on-one with the builders who have requested materials through our Website, they tell us, 'I know it's coming so I better learn about it,'" Paul said. "Every year more builders and architects are asking for our material. Over the last few years, I've had a chance to work with a number of builders around the country, like in Maryland where they have lot of sprinkler requirements, and they don't have an issue with it at all. In Chicago, 43 communities require sprinklers in all new homes and we're not hearing that the homes won't sell because of cost."
Additional information is available about the IRC Fire Sprinkler Coalition at www.ircfiresprinkler.org and about the HFSC at homefiresprinkler.org. The IRC Fire Sprinkler Coalition is offering a free, 90-minute documentary on home sprinklers on DVD through its Website.