BUILDERS’ OPPOSITION TO SPRINKLERS
Builders in Massachusetts successfully lobbied to stop the state’s Board of Building Regulations and Standards (BBRS) from approving a bylaw passed by the residents of the rural community of Egremont (population 1,400). Some of the arguments used to defeat the measure are discussed below. They are presented to acquaint you with the misconceptions that can block selling automatic residential sprinklers to home owners, builders, building inspectors, code enforcers, and others whose support is needed for codes and legislation that mandate residential sprinklers.
The bylaw passed by Egremont required that sprinklers be mandated for all newly constructed residential structures and for existing residential buildings that are “substantially rehabilitated” (in excess of 50 percent). Residents were exercising an option newly available to them under a state law passed during the latter part of 1989. It permits rural communities without a municipal water supply (64 in all) to add lifesafety provisions to their fire code; the local community’s bylaw, however, is subject to the approval of the state’s BBRS.
Egremont does not have a municipal water supply or hydrant system, and most of its volunteer firefighters are not available during the day because they work out of town.
lhe bylaw initiative was especially significant because a builder from Boston had purchased land in Egremont and proposed to construct a development of 200 singleand multiple-family homes.
lhe state legislation and bylaw came about through the extensive efforts of William H. Turner, chief, and William H. Weigle, secretary/ trustee of the Egremont Volunteer Fire Department Inc. and Lawrence Tonini, chief of the West Stockbridge Volunteer Fire Department; they were assisted by the U.S. Fire Administration, which provided a S20.000 grant; Operation Life Safety; the International Association of Fire Chiefs, Joseph A. O’Keefe of the State Fire Marshal’s Office; the Congressional Fire Services Institute; the National Fire Protection Association; the National Sprinkler Association; the American Fire Sprinkler Association; and the New England Fire Marshal’s Office. The model bylaw used by Egremont was written by the attorneys for Egremont and West Stockbridge.
The efforts of the Egremont and West Stockbridge committees included petitioning the state legislature to sponsor and ultimately pass the bill, providing the extensive data that documented the need for the legislation, and implementing an intensive local educational and promotional program.
The Fire Technolog)’ Seminar & I.ive Fire Mutual Aid Drill that was part of the educational program cosponsored by the Egremont and West Stockbridge departments featured bum demonstrations held at an abandoned resort that had been rebuilt according to the state codes. Actually, explains Weigle, the state codes were exceeded, since—although the codes do not require it— cracks, holes, and joints in the structure were filled with fire putty. The two rooms used for the demonstrations were fully decorated with upto-date living room furniture and furnishings.
The USFA grant provided funds for the demonstrations, and Factor)’ Mutual Research Corporation prepared the bum site and documented the temperature, oxygen, and carbon dioxide levels. Franz Haase of LSS Inc. installed the sprinkler system in the demonstration structure. Seven sprinklered burns and one nonsprinklered burn wrere staged. The sprinklered events produced minimal damage, near the site of the fire’s origin (a wastebasket), and were extinguished within seconds. The free burn, on the other hand, destroyed the building. The seven-minute burn and water needed to extinguish the fire rendered the building “a total loss,” in the estimation of State Fire Marshal Joe O’Keefe. The fire had flashed over in about three to four minutes. The five-town mutual-aid response team was on site when the fire ignited but began suppression efforts approximately seven minutes later to simulate response time. The result, according to Weigle, “was that SI million worth of apparatus and some 50 firefighters could not equal one residential sprinkler head tied to a 13D sprinkler system.”
Compressed nitrogen (in accordance with 13D) supplied water for the sprinklers in the tests. Videotapes of the burns were shown on local television networks. A 10-minute videotape, “Less Than Five Minutes,” was created from the demonstrations and is available. (See Resource Box.)
WEST STOCKBRIDGE BYLAW APPROVED BY STATE
The people of West Stockbridge, a rural community with a demographic and fire life-safety profile similar to Egremont’s—and also without a municipal water supply—passed a bylaw mandating sprinklers in all new residential buildings and residences that have been renovated in excess of 50 percent of assessed evaluation-, it was approved by the state. The italicized portion is the amendment that made the bylaw acceptable to the state’s BBRS and attorney general, notes Weigle.
The West Stockbridge fire code now provides that home owners buy a 270-gallon water tank sprinkler system, powered by electric pumps, or a compressed air nitrogen system. Water to fill the tanks will be supplied by wells.
Weigle says that Egremont has incorporated the new language into its original bylaw and will submit it to the state soon.
BUILDERS’ OPPOSING RATIONALE
Some of the arguments you may have to refute when promoting residential sprinklers include the following, which surfaced during the Egremont campaign and appeared in various building/construction/contracting industry trade magazines and in newspapers throughout the country.
According to Garen Bresnick, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Homebuilders, as quoted in THE BOSTON SUNDAY GLOBE (July 22, 1990): “Developers are concerned that if even one town gets approval, ‘it will create a stampede’ of others seeking to make sprinklers a requirement in new homes.”
- The global view of our country’s needs and resources. This theme is the umbrella for positions such as the following: A mandatory residential sprinkler requirement is not costeffective; it is a squandering of money that could be used to purchase items that have the potential to save more lives than sprinklers. One example used is air bags—some critics say the amount it would cost them to install a sprinkler system in new homes could equip 10 million automobiles with air bags.
- The reasoning behind this calculation is that, according to building industry studies, the S4.5 billion the building industry would have to invest in residential sprinklers for new homes would save 19 lives and S15 million in property damages each year.
- The we’re-denying-Americanshomes complex. This approach holds that if so much money is spent making new homes safe that they are unaffordable, sprinklering new homes will force more Americans to remain in a stagnant, less healthful, and more dangerous housing stock, thereby lowering the public’s health.
- The how-can-we-rate-tragicdeaths dilemma. This argument goes
- this way: The real question is whether any one human death is more or less significant or tragic than another; it then proceeds to point out that when resources for life-safety options are limited, builders are equallyconcerned about statistics pertaining to the loss of lives from coronary and vascular diseases, cancer, AIDS, and automobile accidents.
Another argument used against sprinklering new homes is that the majority’ of fire fatalities occur in houses that are 10 years or older. This position is not endorsed by the fire service. In fact, Chief Turner and Secretary Weigic of the Egremont Volunteer Fire Department noted in a letter to the Executive Office of Public Safety of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts that according to the NFFA study U.S. Eire Death Patterns by State, 1980-1987, a “simple statistical correlation shows a slight tendency for lower death rates where there is more old housing.”
This old vs. new construction argument has surfaced in Tucson, Arizona, as well as in Massachusetts, reports Deputy’ Chief of Operations Dennis Van Auken of the Tucson Fire Department. The department has developed an information packet for members of home owner associations, building associations, and other community groups to dispel misconceptions about residential sprinklers and to promote their benefits.
Van Auken adds that the Tucson Code Committee recently assigned a subcommittee that includes builders, architects, fire service personnel, local inspectors, and others involved in approving and enforcing building codes to study the residential sprinkler issue. The last meeting of the subcommittee was to take place the end of May (after press time). It is expected to recommend to the mayor and council that sprinklers be included in new residential construction. If the recommendation is not made, Van Auken says, the fire department then will issue a minority report advocating the installation of sprinklers to the governing body.
A representative of the Massachusetts Homebuilders Association, according to a trade publication for contractors, went so far as to call residential sprinklers “…a ‘cop-out’ on the part of the fire service, whose departments are looking for sometiling to get them off the hook, especially at a time when budgets are getting tight.”
BUILDERS INFLUENCE STATE AS WELL
Builder pressure on state legislators also has been a factor in Cohasset, Massachusetts. A suburb with a population of 7,500 and which is 90 percent hydranted, Cohasset has a building inspector and comes under the state building code. Fire Chief Daniel Brock says that zoning laws are strict and that sprinklers for new residential structures are being proposed on a voluntary basis. Local residents last year passed a bylaw requiring sprinklers in single-family homes, but it was opposed by builders and rejected by the state’s attorney general because it exceeded the requirements in state codes.
Massachusetts state legislators recently passed a law mandating sprinklers in dwellings that house four or more families, Brock reports. Adoption by localities is optional. At press time, Brock was preparing to propose that Cohasset adopt the sprinkler requirement at an open forum during a town meeting; the Board of Selectmen, Brock noted, had voted to support it. He anticipates a struggle with regard to mandatory sprinkler legislation. Part of the reason for this, according to Brock, is that the building inspector has enough to do to enforce the Massachusetts Building Code. The fire department’s jurisdiction is limited to matters that relate most directly to fire control such as inspecting fire alarms, water supplies, and access routes.
Cohasset has joined in the lobbying activities of its regional fire chiefs association to counteract opposition to residential sprinkler legislation.