Smoke Detectors in All Dwellings Required by Retroactive Law

Smoke Detectors in All Dwellings Required by Retroactive Law

features

Smoke detectors, as well as a complete home (ire alarm demonstration system, are carried in this fire safety team van used by the Montgomery County, Md., Division of Fire Prevention. The vehicle also has a rear projection movie screen that can be viewed from outside the vehicle as well as automatic slide projection inside.

A retroactive law in Montgomery County, Md., requires the installation of smoke detectors in all dwellings by July 1, 1978.

Montgomery County Executive James Gleason signed this law last September 14 and approximately 200,000 dwelling units will be affected.

Montgomery County, on the northwest side of Washington, D. C., covers 506 square miles with an estimated population of 600,000. The smoke detector safety measure is the first retroactive legislation involving a metropolitan county of this size.

An interesting story can be told about the background involved in the successful signing of this public safety law. Montgomery County Bill No. 8-76, the numerical title given this law, was unanimously passed by the members of the County Council. However, this was not an automatic simple legislative action.

Initial effort

In recognition of the need for constructive and innovative approaches to the problem of reducing fire deaths and injuries in Montgomery County, efforts were initiated in early 1974 to establish smoke detection legislation. The initial effort involved a fire-service-initiated amendment to the county’s building code.

On March 18, 1975, the Montgomery County Council approved revisions to the county building code. These revisions basically involved the adoption of the 1970 BOCA Building Code with the inclusion of the 1973 BOCA supplements.

Along with these proposed adoptions were local amendments which included a strong smoke detector provision. The local smoke detector amendment to the building code included the requirement that all existing dwelling units thereafter sold and all rental dwelling units thereafter occupied by new tenants must be provided with smoke detection equipment. This provision also required that all new dwelling units be equipped with smoke detectors. This proposal, it was felt by the fire service interests submitting the local amendment, spoke equitably to phasing in the installation of smoke detection equipment in existing dwelling units. After general public hearings related to the adoption of the new BOCA requirements, the building code amendments were adopted. The smoke detector requirement became effective April 17, 1975.

Resistance rises

Shortly after the adoption of the new county building code requirements, the public started to become aware of the specifics associated with the local smoke detection amendment. Specifically, real estate people and other interest groups associated with the sale and rental of residential properties became concerned about the smoke detector requirements. Although the basic desirability of smoke detection equipment was not generally openly disputed, the real estate interests raised a number of legal questions relative to their involvement in sales or rental of property, and their relationship to the requirements for smoke detection installation.

As a matter of fact, one general legal question raised was whether this particular form of legislation did not in fact raise some unconstitutional points in that the legislation was discriminatory in its limitations to certain groups, the seller or renter of residential property.

In view of the strong opposition to this portion of the building code, another public hearing was held to further discuss the specific requirements of the smoke detector section of the code. As a result of this public hearing and the legal questions raised regarding this type of legislation, it was decided in early July of 1975 to withdraw the smoke detector law. The county’s first attempt at retroactive smoke detection legislation, therefore, was lost after a short-lived existence of a little over two months.

Lesson learned

Undaunted by this setback and much wiser from the experience, the fire service immediately initiated new action. Having learned an important political and legislative lesson, it was deemed necessary to reach and discuss with all interest groups the proposals of any new smoke detector legislation.

A new legislative proposal was draft -ed. Simply stated, this called for level IV protection, as described in NFPA Standard No. 74, for all dwelling units, eftective July 1, 1978. Although the original attempt at phasing in the installation of this equipment in existing facilities by tying the installation into new tenancy or sale of existing properties still seemed like a reasonable approach, the new proposal applied to all dwelling units. In this way, unconstitutionality because of class discrimination was eliminated.

Every effort was made to discuss with the media and publish extensively the proposed requirements of this new law and, most important, the need for these requirements. Lengthy, candid and open scheduled meetings were held with building owner and manager groups and associations. All tenant and civic associations were also notified of special meetings to discuss the pros and cons of the proposed legislation.

Change in attitude

As a result of the open request for all groups to become involved in discussions regarding this legislation, the interest groups previously opposed to this fire safety effort became much more aware of the need for the legislation and in almost every case became supporters of the effort.

Another general public hearing was held on the proposed smoke detection legislation and it was heartwarming to see that at this hearing, the majority of the speakers requested the County Council to adopt this new legislation.

After additional work sessions with the County Council to clear up wording problems, the present bill was passed unanimously by the council. It was extremely interesting to hear council members publicly state their new awareness of the need for this type of legislation and, as a result of this awareness, see them vote unanimously for legislation which they previously had withdrawn.

The State of Maryland has had in effect since July 1,1975 a law requiring all new dwelling units to be equipped with smoke detection equipment. This progressive step at a state level, of course, is also amplified by various federal agencies, including HUD, FHA and VA, which also require smoke detection installations in new construction in which they have an interest.

Strong selling point

One of the very strong selling points for the retroactive legislation centered around the completely unjustifiable stance of requiring smoke detection for new construction while ignoring the need for this protection in existing dwellings. There seemed to be little question about acceptance of the theory of smoke detection. It did take a very strong political commitment to pursue the rational conclusion that if smoke detection is a necessary life-saving measure, t hen it must be required in all dwelling units.

Local statistics, similar to those available at the national level, further established the acute need for this type of protection in Montgomery County. Seventy-five percent of the county’s fire deaths occurred between 9 p.m. and 8 a.m. Eighty-seven percent of the county’s fire fatalities occurred in residential properties. Obviously, if meaningful strides were to be made in reducing these fatality figures, strong measures would have to be taken in the residential property. A further review of the past six years’ data relating to fire deaths and injuries indicated that in 70 percent of the residential fatalities, smoke detection equipment would have been a positive factor.

The initial opposition to this legislation found it extremely difficult to effectively counter information and data of this type.

Occupancy data compared

Data was also prepared on a six-year basis relating the fire death and injury incidents in multifamily properties to those in single-family dwellings in the county. It was interesting to note that the ratio of single-family dwellings to apartments and the ratio of fire deaths and injuries in these types of facilities were almost identical. Therefore, the argument that smoke detection should be placed in apartment facilities but not in single-family dwellings could not be factually substantiated.

One of the most frequently asked questions concerns the enforcement of this legislation. It is felt that an extremely large percentage of the 200,000 dwelling units within the county will be protected with minimal cost associated with enforcement. Montgomery County requires that all apartment facilities be licensed. To receive a license, a facility must be in compliance with all county codes. Therefore, the requirement for smoke detection will be spoken to directly through licensure of apartment facilities.

The legislation provides that at the time of sale or rental of a dwelling unit, the seller must provide a certification to the purchaser or new tenant indicating that the required smoke detection is properly installed and in operating condition.

Successes publicized

Through successful public education efforts, it is felt that a large number of the law-abiding citizens within the county will install detection equipment voluntarily. To assist in this public education program, every effort is made to fully publicize the succcessful “saves” through actuation of smoke detectors. An impressive number of successful actuations of this equipment has already been experienced, and this in itself helps tell the story of the need for early detection.

Montgomery County housing inspectors make approximately 5000 single-family dwelling inspections a year. Since this legislation is also part of the housing code, any deficiencies noticed during housing inspections will be acted upon.

It is also felt that the liability associated with a fire tragedy in a home that is not in compliance with this law will provide motivation for a portion of the citizens in the county.

It is encouraging to note that some insurance companies are already recognizing the value of smoke detection installations by offering the residential policyholder a reduction in premium cost. Although, at present, this reduction appears to be quite small, it is a step toward further recognition of the value of smoke detection.

Through cooperative efforts by the media, including TV, radio, and the press, a large number of voluntary installations has already been made. The Division of Fire Prevention in Montgomery County has a large van that is used in its public fire safety education program. This van has had as its main theme smoke detection installation and home escape planning. The public education program associated with this vehicle has been successful in obtaining voluntary detector installations.

Not a panacea

The fact that the installation of smoke detection equipment at the minimal level IV protection standard as provided in NFPA NO. 74 is not a panacea to solve all fire safety problems is quickly pointed out. The unresponsive drunk, the person that has been alerted and does not respond appropriately, the dwelling unit that is equipped with an improperly maintained or installed device, or the person who experiences a sudden fire involving the individual directly is still subject to the tragic consequences of fire. However, from our brief experience with required installations of detection equipment in new construction and voluntary installations, all indications lead us to optimistic predictions of a marked decrease in fire deaths, injuries, and property losses.

Although this legislation was aimed solely at the reduction of fire deaths and injuries, we have experienced a number of situations where the early warning resulting from smoke detection has led to minimal fire losses. In one case, a vacant apartment fire was detected and the neighboring apartment occupants were alerted through the actuation of a detector in the empty apartment. This early reported fire resulted in minimal property loss. Without the detection, undoubtedly a delayed discovery would have led to serious property damage.

Even at this early stage in the evolution of this particular legislative fire safety effort, the number of reported incidents in which families stated that they owed their lives to early detection leads us to believe that this type of effort must be encouraged and further implemented throughout the country.

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