Residential Sprinklers Still Under Fire

BY JOHN WATERS AND TIM KNISELY

In the United States, the overwhelming maj-ority of fire injuries and fatalities occur in one- and two-family dwellings. Fire protection experts readily agree that sprinklers should be installed in all new one- and two-family dwellings, yet those without such expertise oppose such mandates. Local governments now have the mandated responsibility to provide for fire protection for their communities. Sprinklers play a large role in the fire service delivery system for a given community; prohibitions or roadblocks to the requirement for sprinklers by local government officials contradict the democratic principle on which this country was built.

Great strides in fire safety have been made over the past 30 years; the statistics prove a significant decrease in fire deaths and injuries in various types of dwellings, but the percentage of such deaths and injuries occurring in residential properties has not changed. According to the United States Fire Administration (USFA), “19% of all reported fires occurred in one- and two-family dwellings; however, these fires caused 66% of the fire deaths in the United States.” The USFA states that it fully supports “the proposed changes to the International Residential Code [IRC] that would require automatic sprinklers in all new residential construction.”1

The International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) also weighed in on the subject, stating in a position paper, “All new construction, including one- and two-family dwellings, should be built with fire sprinklers installed to protect the public, fire service personnel, the structure, its contents, the economy and the environment.” The IAFC also opposes regulations to prevent or discourage sprinkler installation.2

Sprinklers help prevent fires from reaching flashover in a compartment fire, which is key to reducing fire deaths and injuries. Since 1988, Upper Merion Township, in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, has required residential fire sprinklers in all new residential construction.

On December 22, 2006, Upper Merion Township (PA) Fire and Rescue Services responded to a house fire in the Candlebrook section of the township. The first apparatus arrived six minutes after the initial dispatch. Photo 1 depicts conditions on arrival.

(1) Photos courtesy of authors.

On January 12, 2009, local firefighters responded to a house fire in the township’s Valley Forge Estates section. Photo 2 depicts the conditions on arrival—eight minutes from dispatch.

(2)

On January 9, 2009, firefighters responded to a house fire in the township’s Rebel Hill section. Photo 3 depicts conditions on arrival 10 minutes from dispatch; the missing object to the left of the washer in photo 4 is the dryer.

(3)

(4)

The Candlebrook fire achieved flashover and resulted in one fatality. Both the Valley Forge Estates and Rebel Hill fires were well on their way to flashover; however, just one sprinkler head operated at each fire, and neither family had to move out for the evening.

IRC MANDATES RESIDENTIAL SPRINKLERS

In the fall of 2008, an addition was voted into the IRC that will require the installation of automatic sprinklers in single-family dwellings, effective January 1, 2011. In October 2008, the National Association of Home Builders appealed this change. The International Code Council (ICC) board denied their appeal on December 11, 2008: This denial was affirmed by the ICC Board of Directors on December 19, 2008. In the 2009 IRC, residential sprinklers will be required in all new single-family dwellings beginning January 1, 2011.

The homebuilders may have lost the national ICC appeal, but they have started the fight on another level, state by state.

Pennsylvania was the first state to adopt the 2009 IRC intact. The Pennsylvania Residential Fire Sprinkler Coalition was formed to support adoption of the 2009 IRC without lessening the fire protection provisions. It also supports fixed fire protection as an integral part of a community’s fire service delivery system and allowing communities to strengthen the building code in this regard.

In 2009, Pennsylvania passed legislation (HB 1096), recreating the Uniform Construction Code Review and Advisory Council (RAC). Its purpose is to “ … inform the [Labor and Industry] department of any code provisions that should be excluded from the Uniform Construction code ….” Of interest, North Dakota passed similar legislation but added the following words in its version: “Neither the state building code nor a building code adopted by a city, township or county may include a requirement that fire sprinklers be installed in a single-family dwelling or a residential building that contains not more than two dwelling units.”

The Pennsylvania Residential Fire Sprinkler Coalition was appalled by the North Dakota language and feared that the Pennsylvania Uniform Construction Code RAC would attempt to exclude from the Uniform Construction Code the legally adopted provisions of the IRC as they pertain to the installation of residential sprinklers. This should not be permitted. Statistics have proven the fire problem in the United States and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is in the residential sector; to exclude them from the code defies any logic.

The RAC held its first hearing on residential sprinklers. At the time of the vote, the chairman announced that two of its members, who were not able to be present and who heard no testimony, would be able to vote by phone. This caused quite a stir in the hearing room, and rightfully so. The chairman, who was a builder and definitively against sprinklers, capitulated, and the sprinkler advocates prevailed. During the vote, however, the chair voted with the sprinkler advocates. We left victorious but confused.

A week later, the reasoning behind the chair’s confusing vote was revealed. He called for another meeting of the RAC to reconsider the sprinkler vote. It seems that, according to parliamentary procedure, a call for reconsideration may only be made by a member of the winning side—hence, the chair’s vote. An additional meeting of the RAC was held, no further testimony was permitted, and the two gentlemen who were absent at the original meeting were now present. The chair brought his own counsel with him for advice. The other RAC members felt that, if counsel was needed, it should have been requested by the state. The chair bringing his own counsel caused another stir. After much discussion, a vote was held. The sprinkler advocates were again victorious: Sprinklers would be required in townhouses starting in January 2010 and single-family detached and semidetached structures in January 2011.

The fight was not yet over, however. Early in 2010, the Pennsylvania Builders Association filed for a preliminary injunction to halt the requirement for sprinklers. Although the injunction was filed against the state’s Department of Labor and Industry, the sprinkler coalition filed an amicus brief with the court. The judge did not agree with the builders, and the sprinkler advocates were again victorious. The builders then filed for permanent injunctive relief. The hearing was held mid-year. The judge labeled the builder’s arguments “disingenuous” when finding for the sprinklers.

In November 2010, the builders had convinced the legislature to consider Pennsylvania HB 1196, which would “delay” the requirement for the installation of sprinklers in single-family detached and semidetached dwellings for one year. Both sides of the argument, the wrong side (the builders) and the right side (sprinkler advocates), lobbied hard to keep the code as it is. The sprinkler coalition believes that the “delay” would only provide the builders another year to have the requirement stricken in its entirety. In addition, there has been a major change in the makeup of the legislature in the recent election. The builders, we are told, are ready to launch a new campaign next year if they are not successful with the current HB 1196. The Pennsylvania House of Representatives adjourned for the legislative season on November 15, 2010, without considering House Bill 1196. Sprinklers are “in” in Pennsylvania!

In 2008, Pennsylvania’s legislature passed laws (HB 1133 and its companion bills) making local municipalities responsible for the fire service delivery system for their constituents. Sprinklers, acting as flashover prevention systems, can have a definitive effect on that delivery system. Local governments should not be hamstrung in their mandated fire safety responsibility by legislation that would forbid them to use all of the resources needed to combat their fire problem, namely fire sprinkler systems.

The builders have made it abundantly clear that they oppose any efforts to require residential sprinklers; certainly, that is their right. Their implied position that the current rate of fire fatalities and injuries is acceptable is their prerogative, but the coalition questions their expertise in matters of fire protection.

Expertise is defined as the knowledge of an expert. Numerous Pennsylvania fire service organizations support the residential sprinkler requirement and oppose any attempt to block the mandate in Pennsylvania.3

The USFA, the IAFC, and others support residential sprinklers. To whom should one defer—the builders or those who have the education, the background, and the experience to make informed recommendations regarding fire protection and the best method for providing it?

ENDNOTES

1. United States Fire Administration, “Focus on Fire Safety: Residential Fire Sprinklers Save Lives. ” (Rev. 3/30/10), www.usfa.dhs.gov/citizens/focus/residentialsprinklers.shtm.

2. International Association of Fire Chiefs, “Fire Sprinklers in New Construction” (position paper, March 13, 2008), http://www.iafc.org/associations/4685/files/IAFCposition_FireSprinklersNewConstruct.pdf.

3. “Pennsylvania Forms Residential Fire Sprinkler Coalition,” http://www.lcfa.com/clientuploads/directory/SpecialReports/Residential_Sprinkler_Coalition.pdf.

JOHN WATERS, a member of the fire service since 1971, is the chief fire marshal for Upper Merion Township in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. He is co-chair of the Pennsylvania Residential Fire Sprinkler Coalition for the Pennsylvania Fire and Emergency Services Institute in Harrisburg. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland and a master’s degree from Grand Canyon University and is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program. Waters is pursuing a second master’s degree at the Naval Postgraduate School.

TIM KNISELY is the senior fire inspector for the Centre Region Code Administration in State College, Pennsylvania, and co-chair of the Pennsylvania Residential Fire Sprinkler Coalition for the Pennsylvania Fire and Emergency Services Institute in Harrisburg. Active in emergency services since 1981, he is a firefighter with the Alpha Fire Company in State College and served as chief of the Bellefonte Fire Department. Knisely is a local level instructor for the Pennsylvania State Fire Academy.

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