In mid-September, the International Code Council (ICC) will hold the Final Action Hearing for its 2009 edition of residential and commercial building codes. At that meeting in Minneapolis, proponents will once again attempt to muster support among ICC’s membership for inserting into the model International Residential Code (IRC) a provision mandating the installation of automatic fire sprinklers into all new one- and two-family homes. (It’s currently in IRC as an appendix whose compliance is optional.)
Anyone at that event will hear the same arguments for and against a residential sprinkler code change that advocates (primarily fire service agencies) and opponents (primarily builders) have been debating for more than 30 years. In late March, U.S. Fire Administrator Gregory Cade endorsed sprinkler installation in all homes. But home builders’ clout across the country so far has been an effective deterrent. However, more municipal politicians have been open to approving sprinkler ordinances, especially where recent fires have proved fatal.
One- and two-family homes accounted for around one-fifth of the total number of fires in 2006, the latest year for which data are available, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). But two-thirds of all fire-related deaths that year occurred in home fires. Each year, about 25 firefighters die trying to put out home fires, accounting for 45 percent of all firefighter deaths annually. Fire prevention officials claim that a combination of sprinklers and smoke alarms in a home can reduce occupant fatalities by 97 percent. They point for evidence to Vancouver, British Columbia, which hasn’t had a home fire death since it passed its sprinkler ordinance in 1990.
Roy Marshall, executive director of the Residential Fire Safety Institute (RFSI), is confident that momentum is shifting and that sprinklers will one day be as common in new houses as water heaters. There are about 300 municipalities that have passed sprinkler ordinances, nearly half of them in California, including the town of Galt, whose city council voted 4-1 in favor in January. Fifty-four municipalities in Northern Illinois have similar ordinances. Rising demand for installations led the fire department in Salem, Ore., to offer sprinkler seminars for plumbers, which drew 41 contractors in February. “Three years ago, we had no calls for them,” Joe Parrott, deputy chief of fire and life safety, told Salem’s Statesman Journal.
In May 2007, a residential fire sprinkler code revision received a 56 percent favorable vote—476 for to 375 against—at ICC’s annual meeting in Rochester, N.Y. “This was an unprecedented level of support,” says Jeffrey Shapiro, president of Austin, Texas–based International Code Consultants. But code changes require a two-thirds majority to override committee opposition, and that opposition is expected to continue on the residential committee that last January rejected three sprinkler code changes at a hearing in Palm Springs, Calif. So fire services are urging their brethren to turn out in force in Minneapolis. “Our opposition … isn’t really home builders and developers. It’s our own apathy,” writes Ronny Coleman, a master instructor in California’s Fire Service Training and Education System, in a recent issue of Fire Chief magazine. With 30,000 fire departments and 1.1 million firefighters in the U.S., the fire sprinkler debate, he says, “is ours to win or lose.”