Home sprinkler advocates fight off builders at ICC hearings

BY ROBERT P. MADER
Of CONTRACTOR’s staff

BALTIMORE — Proponents of residential fire sprinklers fought off an attempt by the National Association of Home Builders to kill fire sprinklers in the 2012 edition of the International Code Council’s International Residential Code. Residential sprinklers were mandated for the first time in the 2009 IRC, which takes effect January 1, 2011.

The ICC met here for a weeklong series of code update hearings at the end of October. The IRC panel voted seven to four to keep residential fire sprinklers in the code. The final action on the issue will be voted on at the May 2010 meeting of ICC, at which only building officials and code enforcers can vote. The vote was hailed as an important win for residential fire safety because it will force homebuilders and their allies to get a two-thirds vote to override the sprinkler requirements at the May ICC meeting, which is considered unlikely. The American Fire Sprinkler Association, National Fire Sprinkler Association, the International Residential Code Fire Sprinkler Coalition, and numerous other pro-sprinkler groups, the fire service and building representatives lobbied in favor of sprinklers.

The fire service Web site FireRescue1.com reported, “Advocates in the home sprinkler debate were so numerous at the hearing that organizers were warned by the Baltimore Fire Department that the event was becoming a fire hazard by exceeding maximum occupancy of the building.

“An estimated 1,500 supporters of fire sprinklers were in the audience, according to Ronny Coleman, president of the International Residential Code Fire Sprinkler Coalition.

“ ‘This is a watershed day for the American fire service that people will look back on 100 years from now,’ said Coleman. ”

Currently, 44 states are in various stages of legislation to adopt the IRC, which includes the fire sprinkler requirement.

With this vote, residential fire sprinkler requirements are moving to become a standard fire safety addition to homes. The initiative has the potential to reduce the 3,000 yearly fire deaths in the U.S., as well as reduce serious injury and property damage.

Statistics show that nationally, residential fire sprinklers cost approximately $1.61 per-square-foot of finished space, or 1% of the value of the home to install, sprinkler advocates said. The cost is expected to account for approximately $3,500 to $5,000 of the price of a new home.

“Over a 30-year mortgage, that’s less than the price of a cup of coffee per week,” said John Viniello, president of the National Fire Sprinkler Association. “That’s a small price to pay to save the lives of your loved ones in the event of a fire. This is a big win for the fire service and American residents. In order to reduce this country’s fire problem, it must be attacked where fires happen the most, which is in the home.”

Proposals to modify the 2012 International Residential Code included RB 54, which would have removed the mandatory requirement and made it an optional provision, RB 56, which would delete sprinkler requirements for townhomes and one- and two-family occupancies and move P2904 back to the appendix, making the requirement optional; and RB 57, which would have completely removed the sprinkler requirements from these residential occupancies.

The homebuilders’ proposals were met by a scathing rebuttal by the National Fire Protection Association. The seven-page document presented by NFPA included statements such as, “The rationale for this proposal includes a number of statements, none of them substantiated and some of them demonstrably false. The petitioner does not provide any supporting evidence for the claim that high risk (elderly or low-income) households constitute a large or disproportionate share of new small-townhouse developments or that the communities hosting those developments ‘often’ have limited water supplies available.”

Later in the document, NFPA stated, “In these words, NAHB plainly states its belief that there is no need to reduce the annual fire death toll in this country. In other words, 3,000 home fire deaths a year — including nearly 2,500 deaths a year in one- and two-family homes and townhouses — are safe enough. Most Americans would disagree …”

Fire service professional across the country have endorsed the new sprinkler regulations, including the U.S. Fire Administration, the International Association of Fire Chiefs, the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, and the International Association of Firefighters. Groups such as these agree smoke detectors are no longer enough in residential fire protection, as the time to escape a house fire has dwindled from 17 minutes 20 years ago to three minutes today, and this poses a severe risk to those who cannot self-evacuate or have mobility concerns.

“This is not a one-person or one-organization victory,” added Viniello. “We are grateful to the ICC for implementing a process that allows for the call for change to be heard and provides a forum for change to take place. In addition, we thank the International Residential Code Fire Sprinkler Coalition for joining so many organizations together to bring us to victory.”