Bring residential fire sprinklers into the code

By Bob Miodonski Publisher and editorial director INSTALLING FIRE SPRINKLERS is a good idea that we've advocated for a long time. We've focused our discussions in the past on the victims of fires in unsprinklered buildings, and to us that meant the building occupants. Perhaps more than any trade group that I'm familiar with, the National Fire Sprinkler Association appeals to the emotions of its contractor

By Bob Miodonski
Publisher and editorial director

INSTALLING FIRE SPRINKLERS is a good idea that we've advocated for a long time. We've focused our discussions in the past on the victims of fires in unsprinklered buildings, and to us that meant the building occupants.

Perhaps more than any trade group that I'm familiar with, the National Fire Sprinkler Association appeals to the emotions of its contractor members at its meetings to stir them to action. That's easy to understand because of the life-or-death situations that sprinkler contractors regularly encounter.

Yet the emotional centerpiece of NFSA's convention last month in Las Vegas was a speech by the widow not of a building occupant but of a New York City firefighter. She detailed his painful death from lingering injuries suffered from fighting a fire in an unsprinklered building.

Her situation is one shared by the families of the 100 firefighters who die each year in the line of duty, Alvina Drennan told NFSA members. "Losing 100 firefighters a year doesn't happen in Europe or anywhere else," she noted.

No other group of people should support the work of sprinkler contractors more than firefighters, Drennan said. She's correct, of course. Any firefighter who dies in a building that doesn't have fire sprinklers is one more reason to make sprinklers mandatory.

Yet NFSA members heard many other good reasons as well. More than 3,600 people died in residential fires in the last year, sprinkler advocate Vickie Pritchett told them. One million are injured or burned in fires, she noted, with 46,000 being hospitalized.

That's why we're heartened by the vote May 21 in Rochester, N.Y., by members of the International Code Council that brings residential fire sprinklers closer to being included in the International Residential Code. Although supporters of sprinklers in new homes fell short of the number of votes they needed, they're encouraged by the momentum that the issue is gaining.

No one can afford to allow quality to become an issue.

Jeffrey M. Shapiro, founder of the IRC Fire Sprinkler Coalition, noted that even though his group was not able to change the code last month, it did make "a significant statement that residential fire sprinklers will find their way into all new-home construction."

Former California State Fire Marshal Ronny J. Coleman, a long-time proponent-of residential sprinklers, adds 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."

The measure still faces heavy opposition from many home builders, who consider fire sprinklers an unnecessary expense that affects their bottom line. Half the seats on the IRC Code Development Committee are appointees of the National Association of Home Builders, which opposes fire sprinklers, so it's not a big surprise that the Committee members voted to disapprove addition of sprinklers.

Adding sprinklers to the code would require a two-thirds majority vote by ICC members. That means that residential sprinkler supporters could have to wait until September 2008 when members of ICC could override the Committee at their next hearing in Minneapolis.

By then, we only can hope that enough contractors are qualified to install residential fire sprinklers if the override is successful. A legitimate concern at the NFSA meeting was how few of its members have added a home fire sprinkler division to their companies in the last two years.

Certainly, a business case can be made for residential fire sprinklers as well. NFSA Vice Chairman Gregg Huennekens, president of sprinkler contractor United States Fire Protection in Chicago, told members: "If you invest your resources in a residential division, you will get a better return. We've all worked hard to create this market, and we want to keep it in this industry for sprinkler contractors."

The not-so-unspoken fear of sprinkler contractors is that plumbing contractors will fill any void when sprinklers become widespread in new-home construction. This issue isn't a new one, although more plumbing contractors could take a fresh look at sprinklers when they're added to the code.

Our view is that home fire sprinklers save lives, reduce property damage, and they're a business opportunity. What's important is that contractors are properly trained to install and maintain fire sprinkler systems. No one can afford to allow quality to become an issue.

We support adding fire sprinklers to the International Residential Code for new home construction. We see thousands of reasons each year why this should happen.

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