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PA fire sprinkler measure under attack

PA fire sprinkler measure under attack But NFSA predicts eventual requirement of sprinklers in new homes

PATTERSON, N.Y.—A new Pennsylvania law requiring automatic fire sprinkler systems in all new one- and two-family homes as of Jan. 1 was battling for survival this week in the General Assembly.

A bill that would allow builders to opt out of the sprinkler requirement and instead require additional fireproofing of floor construction if sprinklers aren't used won approval in that state's House of Representatives on March 7 by a margin of nearly 4 to 1. The bill also appeared to have strong support in the Senate, according to observers, and the governor's stance on the legislation was unclear.

Buddy Dewar, VP of regional operations for the National Fire Sprinkler Association, told Security Systems News that Pennsylvania legislators are being fed misinformation by homebuilders trying to protect their profits. But Dewar said that even if this legislative battle is lost, the NFSA, which is based here, will keep on providing factual information to lawmakers on the need for home fire sprinklers, and he expects they will eventually become a requirement nationwide.

“I call this the 10 Years War,” Dewar said. “Within 10 years it's going to be a requirement in all new homes … It's in the code and it's not going to go away.”

According to the International Residential Code Fire Sprinkler Coalition, “when the International Code Council publishes the 2012 International Residential Code next year, the code will include a requirement for fire sprinklers to be a standard feature in new homes. That requirement was initially added to the IRC in the 2009 edition, and ICC's members soundly rejected efforts by the National Association of Home Builders to have the requirement repealed in 2012.”

States either use the IRC or a code similar to it, Dewar said.

Last year, Pennsylvania and California adopted the 2009 versions of the IRC and became the first two states to require automatic sprinkler systems in new one- and two-family homes as of Jan. 1 this year.

Now, new legislation in California would delay implementation of the sprinkler law there for a couple of years, Dewar said.

But he said there has been no strong effort from California homebuilders to overturn the law there because individual communities there have already tested the sprinkler requirement and found it works. “The difference between California and Pennsylvania is that California has 162 cities, all high growth rate cities, that have had a sprinkler requirement for decades so there's a track record of no fire deaths on those properties and a track record of 80-85 percent less damage in those properties,” Dewar said.

In Pennsylvania, he said, homebuilder sprinkler opponents are using such misinformation as saying sprinkler systems would cost $20,000 or more and stop the recovery of the housing market. But a national study puts the cost of a home sprinkler system at $1.61 per square foot and Dewar believes it could be as low as $1.25 per square foot in Pennsylvania, or $2,500 for a 2,000-square-foot home.

He said the homebuilders have persuaded most legislators to favor the bill allowing a sprinkler opt-out, HB 377. “It has strong support based on misinformation,” Dewar said.

Republican state Rep. Garth Everett, who sponsored the bill, said he and other lawmakers are concerned about such factors as additional sprinkler costs for homes in rural areas that  have wells. He said the bill has additional fire protection requirements for pre-engineered beams, a concern of firefighters, and that homeowners still have the option of choosing sprinkler systems if they want them.

But Dewar said lawmakers are listening to builders telling them: “We want the right to build buildings in non-compliance with the national codes.”

Select Security, an alarm company based in Lancaster, Pa., saw Pennsylvania's new Jan. 1 residential sprinkler requirement as an opportunity to buy a sprinkler company last fall. []

Thomas Perry, general manager of Fire Systems Integrated, Select Security's new sprinkler division, told SSN he has been battling the “factually incorrect” campaign of homebuilders for more than year, including doing interviews on television and radio.

He said if the state sprinkler requirement is overturned, it won't affect the company much because the division was already a well established business before Select Security bought it. However, Perry said, some sprinkler companies had counted on the business the new law would generate. “I think probably there were quite a few companies that geared up for this,” he said.

Dewar predicted that lawsuits filed by homeowners for loss of life and property damage from fires in unsprinklered homes will eventually lead to states mandating home sprinklers.

“I used to be the state fire marshal for the state of Florida and have been involved in codes for decades and I remember when the homebuilders opposed smoke detectors and ground fault circuit interrupters, both safety items,” Dewar said. “And it wasn't until there were some lawsuits filed that they finally embraced the concept, so we're going to see the same thing here with the sprinklers systems.”


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