Lofty claims reap fire sprinkler installers and equipment manufacturers high returns in residential and nonresidential building. In building-code development,
DON MARSH, EDITOR
Lofty claims reap fire sprinkler installers and equipment manufacturers high returns in residential and nonresidential building. In building-code development, their promotion groups down play the value of noncombustible materials and any aspect of life safety in a building other than water pipes and sprinkler heads. Groups further their case by pretending that codes, versus public awareness campaigns and law enforcement, are the best means to curtail casualties stemming from leading causes of residential structure fires: smoking, irresponsible use of cooking and heating equipment, and arson.
Talking life safety but eyeing profit, fire sprinkler proponents have secured a favorable 2009 International Residential Code provision through a brazen stunt involving fire service allies. The provision potentially adds $10,000 or more to the cost of a single-family home, and joins the 2009 IRC following a 1,283-470 vote during mid-September International Code Council meetings in Minneapolis. In communities nationwide that adopt the IRC outright, builders will be required to install automatic fire sprinklers in single- and two-family homes and town-homes Û budgets for patios, hardscapes, outdoor kitchens, granite countertops, stainless steel appliances or other discretionary features be damned.
The National Association of Home Builders noted questionable circumstances during the 2009 IRC final hearing: 900 fire service members arrived suddenly to vote on the sprinkler provision; and, despite additional ballot measures, approximately 1,200 voting devices were turned in to ICC staff following the sprinkler vote. In a post-hearing press release, IRC Fire Sprinkler Coalition President Ronny Coleman crowed, Our team worked hard to rally support throughout the United States for a residential fire sprinkler requirement, but our supporters deserve the recognition for showing up en masse in Minneapolis.
The 2009 IRC will not guarantee windfall. States and cities that model their codes on the IRC can modify or strike requirements. Homebuilder groups and affordable-housing advocates will almost assuredly weigh in with state and local officials on residential fire sprinklers’ dubious cost-benefit and performance track records, as well as maintenance requirements most homeowners are ill-prepared to tackle. To counter arguments for blanket 2009 IRC adoption Û principally that sprinklers save lives Û homebuilders and affordable-housing advocates should remind code officials of the National Fire Protection Association’s most glaring fact on residential structure fires in 2007: Two-thirds of the 3,000-plus deaths in such events occurred in homes absent functioning smoke detectors.
Prior to adopting the 2009 IRC verbatim, code officials need to consider: Have we arrived at fire safety when 66 percent of a recent year’s incidents involving fatalities could have been prevented with widely available, IRC-mandated smoke detectors/alarms, which at $20-$30 each, can be properly installed throughout most homes for well under $500? How will sticking buyers of new suburban homes with a $10,000 fire sprinkler tax reduce the number of fire fatalities in urban neighborhoods filled with non-code-compliant housing stock?
Fire sprinkler proponents claim their technology saves firefighters’ lives, but at what cost compared to safeguards for those in other occupations? In 2007, the NFPA reported 17 firefighter deaths at residential sites. Multiply that number by 49 and you get 835, the number of fatalities the U.S. DOT recorded among highway construction and maintenance crews in 2007, or 59 to reach 1,178, the number of fatalities in construction overall that OSHA logged for the year.
Fire service members who helped stack the 2009 IRC cards in the IRC Fire Sprinkler Coalition’s favor might themselves ponder: Have we exhausted every avenue Û including outreach to community and religious organizations vital in spreading word of public health and safety measures Û to ensure all citizens sleep well within earshot of a working smoke detector?