Howard council appears set to OK bill requiring fire sprinklers

February 23, 2010|By Larry Carson |

The Howard County Council appears set to approve a bill Monday night heavily supported by firefighting groups to require sprinklers in every new, detached home built in the county, starting Jan. 1.

New townhouses built in Howard have been required to have them since 1992.

None of the five council members said they opposed the idea after a work session this week, though western county Republican Greg Fox said he's exploring an amendment phasing in the change for rural homes without public water and sewer service, because of the added expense of a storage tank and a pump.

County officials said they continue to talk to county home builders about the issue in rural areas, and county Fire Chief William Goddard said he strongly favors the building code change, citing figures showing that, over the past two years, fires have been extinguished in 20 county homes equipped with them.

Council members Mary Kay Sigaty, Jen Terrasa and Calvin Ball, all Democrats, said they strongly favor the change.

"It's time is well passed," said Terrasa, who represents southeastern Howard County.

"I am definitely for it," said Ball, a former firefighter who represents east Columbia and Jessup.

Scores of firefighters and fire officials turned out at a council public hearing Thursday, but heard a lobbyist for home builders oppose the move, which is part of a regular updating of public building codes.

Robert Frances, the county's director of Inspections, Licenses and Permits, said the change is needed to help save the lives of homeowners and to protect firefighters. Sprinklers have been required in new townhouses in the county since 1992, and they are now required in single-family homes in nine of Maryland's 24 jurisdictions.

"Residential sprinklers are in the [building codes] and they are here to stay," Frances said, comparing their novelty to the introduction of electrical and indoor plumbing standards in decades past.

William E. Barnard, the state fire marshall, said "smoke alarms are not enough," because some people aren't awakened by them. Sprinklers help either extinguish or dampen a fire enough to help people safely escape. Only the sprinkler head above the fire typically is triggered, he said, and the systems normally need no regular maintenance.

A 15-year study of house fires in Prince George's County, where sprinklers have been required since the early 1990s, shows that more than 100 deaths from fire occurred in homes without them, while none were recorded in any of the 50,000 homes with sprinklers, Barnard said.

But Michael L. Harrison, a spokesman for the Homebuilders Association of Maryland, said builders fear the added cost of sprinklers will hurt sales in a struggling industry, and he noted that Baltimore County rejected mandatory sprinklers.

"Above all, I think it's a freedom of choice issue," he told the County Council. "If they don't want sprinklers, they should have that right. Somebody would rather have granite counter tops."

At the very least, Harrison asked the council to exclude rural areas without public water and sewer from the requirement. Sprinklers in those areas require a more elaborate system using a water tank and a pump to work.

He said sprinklers can cost from $2.50 to $7.50 per square foot, though fire officials said $1.60 per square foot is more realistic.

Harrison argued that builders are working on small profit margins and sprinklers "are going to price people out of the market. This is another pot of money adding to the cost of housing," he said.

In response, Sigaty had a question that Harrison appeared uncomfortable answering.

"How do you equate that to the cost of a human life?" she asked.

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