Debate Rages On Cost of Fire Sprinkler Retrofits

Special to CONTRACTOR CHICAGO Two deadly fires that occurred in less than a week in January prove the need for federal legislation to enact laws that assist business owners who retrofit their buildings with fire sprinkler systems, the National Fire Sprinkler Association claims. These are unspeakable tragedies, said NFSA President John Viniello referring to the Home Away From Home assisted-living facility

Special to CONTRACTOR

CHICAGO — Two deadly fires that occurred in less than a week in January prove the need for federal legislation to enact laws that assist business owners who retrofit their buildings with fire sprinkler systems, the National Fire Sprinkler Association claims.

“These are unspeakable tragedies,” said NFSA President John Viniello referring to the Home Away From Home assisted-living facility fire in Blount County, Tenn., where three people died and the Comfort Inn Hotel fire in Greenville, S.C., where six people died.

“We’re just three weeks into the New Year and we’ve already seen multiple deaths that could have been prevented if the buildings had fire sprinkler systems,” he said.

In every case the buildings were built before codes required fire sprinklers, he noted.

He added that building owners and managers often aggressively fight code changes.

“We are seeing it now in Chicago. The City Council is considering two ordinances that require high-rise buildings be retrofit following the fire in the Cook County Administration building where six people died last October (November 2003, pg. 1),” Viniello said. “BOMA [Building Owners and Managers Association] is working hard to prevent the ordinances from being passed.”

The Northern Illinois Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board is claiming BOMA/Chicago did not provide accurate information during a meeting with the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board.

Referring to the article, “Sprinkler law could put squeeze on city’s high-rises,” which appeared Jan. 23 in the Tribune, a NIFSAB spokesperson said representatives from BOMA did not provide accurate information about the cost to retrofit fire sprinklers in high-rise buildings, utilization of existing fire pumps and standpipe infrastructure, and fires and fire death data.

“It’s a true disappointment to see how misinformed the BOMA group is with an issue that is dealing with life safety,” said Tom Lia, NIFSAB executive director.

In the article, the group claimed that it would cost about $10 per sq. ft. to retrofit fire sprinklers in a high-rise building.

“We looked at the numbers from high-rise buildings in Chicago that have been retrofit with a fire sprinkler system,” Lia said. “They all fall in the $2.50 to $3.50 range, some even less.

“None of our numbers come close to $10 per sq. ft.,” Lia said. “The fire sprinkler industry has quite a few retrofit jobs to back up the numbers. In 1996, it cost an average of $4.75 to retrofit the Union League Club. That building has offices, meeting rooms, hotel guest rooms and a health club. Most of the work was done at night on overtime rates. The cost per square foot included cutting and patching the ornamental plaster ceilings, but that is the highest cost that we have seen and it includes incidental work.”

Michael Cornicelli, director of government affairs for BOMA/Chicago, told CONTRACTOR that fire sprinkler industry estimates do not include costs for upgrading standpipes and fire pumps, overtime pay if work is done at night, associated electrical work, relocating tenants or forgoing rents, and demolition and repair work. Cornicelli said BOMA/Chicago estimates that demolition of a plaster or solid ceiling and subsequent repair work would cost $3.40 per sq. ft.

Cornicelli also said that most of the unsprinklered buildings are Class B and Class C office space, home to startups, entrepreneurs and nonprofits that can’t afford high rents.

NFSA’s Viniello said it’s vital that Congress pass H.R. 1824 because it will provide a substantial tax benefit to building owners who install or retrofit fire sprinklers. U.S. Reps. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., and James Langevin, D-R.I., introduced H.R. 1824 in April 2003.

The bill would amend the 1986 Internal Revenue Code to classify automatic fire sprinkler systems as five-year property for depreciation. The law would change the depreciation schedule from the current 39 years.

Cornicelli said BOMA favors H.R. 1824 but doesn’t think it has any chance of passage. He said BOMA/Chicago would like to see any step that would make sprinklers more affordable, such as tax credits, property tax assessment caps, bonds, Tax Increment Financing districts or low-interest financing.

TAGS: Piping