Firefighters want sprinklers in new homes

March 11, 2007|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun reporter

With the county's triennial review of the building code coming up, Harford firefighters have stepped up their effort to push for an ordinance requiring sprinkler systems in new single-family homes.

The Harford County Volunteer Fire and EMS Association has formed a committee to compile data to bolster the argument that sprinklers enhance safety, said spokesman Rich Gardiner. The organization plans to submit a report to the County Council.

"We support any effort to provide any life-safety improvements to all occupied structures," Gardiner said.

County law has long required sprinklers in multiple-family dwellings such as townhouses and apartment buildings. Fire officials would like to expand that regulation to include all new single-family homes.

Fire officials liken sprinkler systems to seat belts and air bags in automobiles. The sprinklers would alert residents at the first sign of smoke as well as help protect firefighters.

"Few things match the effectiveness of a sprinkler system on life, safety and protection of a home," said W. Faron Taylor, spokesman for the Maryland Office of the Fire Marshal. "Sprinklers will activate within 20 seconds and give residents ample time to evacuate a home."

The International Code Council, a building safety and fire prevention advocacy group, develops the codes that govern construction of residential and commercial buildings, including homes and schools. Many U.S. cities, counties and states follow the council's lead on adopting or revising codes.

The code council is scheduled to meet this spring to update regulations and might make sprinklers mandatory for all new residential construction. Harford officials said they would likely emulate the regulation.

The county, which revises the building code every three years, mirrors international code standards. The county staff will review and propose amendments to local regulations this fall and submit changes to the County Council. Among those recommendations could be a sprinkler ordinance, said Richard D. Lynch, director of Department of Inspections, Licensing and Permits.

"Historically, we tend to follow what is recommended by national, and we know, at that level, there is a tremendous push to adopt," Lynch said. "All the dynamics are there for the county to adopt."

The impetus on the renewed effort to push for a sprinkler ordinance stems in part from a Jan. 18 fire in Abingdon that killed five people. Though a sprinkler ordinance would not have affected the century-old home in that incident, fire officials said the tragedy brought fire safety issues to the forefront.

"To avoid tragedies like we had in Abingdon, we would have needed this law 100 years ago," Lynch said.

The firefighters' efforts preceded the Abingdon fire, but that event highlighted the need, said spokesman Dave Williams.

"We were talking about this long before the Abingdon fire. Every house we build in 2007 will be 50 years old one day," he said.

Traditionally, building industry concerns over the cost that mandatory sprinklers add to new construction have led to opposition to such ordinances. Fire officials say random samplings from more than 150 companies that install the systems show the one-time cost averages about $1.25 per square foot for a home on public water, Taylor said.

For homes in rural areas, a small holding tank and pump can be installed for about $1,500.

Havre de Grace and Aberdeen have enacted mandatory sprinkler legislation, as have Carroll and Charles counties, Taylor said.

"Jurisdictions are recognizing the value of these systems to the citizens they serve and to the safety of their firefighters," Taylor said.

Lynch and members of his staff plan to attend hearings on international building codes, scheduled for May in Rochester, N.Y.

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