What role do we want local government to play?

By Chelsea Maude Avirett | Sep 22, 2016

During discussions about the recent Air BnB ordinance, residents frequently voiced concern that the city’s Life Safety code is too stringent. Rockland’s Life Safety code adopts the model codes issued by the International Code Council, a practice ubiquitous nationwide.

City Council is now debating whether to amend the Life Safety code so that new residential properties of less than 1,000 square feet are not required to include sprinklers, in contrast with the recommendations of the ICC and fire departments.

Nationwide, municipalities and states are also grappling with whether to require sprinklers in all new construction, one of the more controversial revisions the ICC has adopted. Since the ICC adopted the requirement in 2011, most states have passed laws prohibiting municipalities from including the more stringent sprinkler requirements in their local codes.

The debate about requiring sprinklers in new construction centers around the expense and necessity of installing sprinklers versus the safety benefit they offer. Home builders stress that sprinklers are expensive to install and maintain and that the safety benefits are marginal. Fire departments stress that any reduction in fire-related deaths is worthwhile and necessary.

The main benefits to sprinklers appear to be more about reducing physical damage from fires than increasing safety for inhabitants. While fire departments frequently quote statistics that show no one has died in a house with a sprinkler system, wired fire detectors have proven much more effective at reducing the number of fire-related residential deaths. The National Fire Protection Association estimates that residents have a 99.45 percent chance of surviving a fire if a working fire alarm is present, and nationwide most deaths (three out of every five) occur in a home without a working fire alarm.

This doesn’t mean that sprinklers are redundant as far as safety is concerned. A person generally has about three minutes to escape a burning building; sprinklers activate within 30 to 60 seconds of a fire starting, increasing the time for those inside to escape. This is crucial if anyone with limited mobility is in the house; for example, a small child or an elderly person. (The latter are more than twice as likely to die in a fire as someone under 65.)

Everyone agrees that sprinklers reduce the overall damage to a house once a fire has started (which is why insurance companies encourage them). Sprinklers reduce property damage by about 90 percent, because they contain most fires to where they start, meaning that fire personnel can quickly extinguish the fire fully when they arrive. (This also means that sprinklers significantly reduce the overall amount of water used in a fire, an important environmental consideration.) There’s a clear argument that sprinklers reduce risks during fires, but that’s not necessarily an argument for requiring them through legislation.

Because sprinklers increase safety marginally, there’s a legitimate question about whether the requirement to include sprinklers in single-family residences is worth legislating. This leads to two issues that haven’t been vetted locally: Are there models for a possible middle ground that might satisfy both homeowner and fire department concerns? What are Rockland’s local values and, when competing claims exist, what do we as a community want to prioritize in our legislation?

The fire department in Kirkland, Wash., has workshopped the question of sprinklers with community members for years. While the fire department advocates that all residential properties be sprinkled, it has worked carefully to find a middle ground to make sprinkling buildings more cost-effective. They focus on two ways to encourage sprinklers.

First, they recommend allowing smaller homes to include a simplified sprinkler system that is incorporated into standard plumbing systems and cheaper than running separate systems for plumbing and sprinkling. (Smaller homes are currently exempted from their requirements.) Second, they have carefully examined the Life Safety code to determine which fire safety requirements become unnecessary if a sprinkler system is installed; builders then choose between installing a sprinkler or installing a set of additional fire-safety related requirements.

These are smart compromises that carefully balance fire department and builders' concerns while also prioritizing the highest commitment to community safety. But it leaves open the second question: should government require people to be generally safe or to implement the best possible safety measures?

Fire alarms are relatively inexpensive and have a very noticeable rate of reducing deaths, so requiring working ones (and enforcing that requirement) serves a clear public benefit. But sprinklers provide only a negligible safety benefit, so is it fair for a government to ask private homeowners to take expensive measures to address what is a relatively small risk?

For homes that are owner-occupied, I don’t think it does. In that case, the ordinance as currently written strikes a solid boundary between owners' choices and the fire department’s concerns: homes that do not have sprinklers must be built of particular materials that are more fire-resistant than new constructions currently use; wired smoke detectors are required; and the property must be used only for one family, so the decision does not put anyone else at risk.

But this doesn’t address what happens if the owner decides to rent the property. In that case, does the government have a greater interest in ensuring that a property is as safe as possible when it is built?

Currently Rockland says yes in some cases — in many renovations, 100-year old staircases have to be rebuilt to accommodate new codes, for example. But the risk of falling down stairs is much higher than the risk of dying in a house with working fire alarms.

The question circles back around, as it often does with legislation, to the larger context of community values. When we have such competing claims (homeowners, safety officials, renters, vulnerable populations), how do we balance those concerns? As a community, we have not really answered the question about the role of local government in the abstract, so we have no precedents to follow when faced with specific questions, such as the role of the Recreation Department, or whether to require sprinklers in new construction.

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Comments (1)
Posted by: David E Myslabodski | Sep 22, 2016 14:05

Hi there C M A


RE "The main benefits to sprinklers appear to be more about reducing physical damage from fires than increasing safety for inhabitants."


I will respectfully disagree on this one!  One has to separately discuss commercial and residential sprinkler systems. In residential systems, the MAIN goal is to save lives, not to protect property.


You are correct in pointing out that there are many other [low-cost] measurements that will also reduce the risk of a fire and/or assist in saving lives.


Leaving aside the various interpretation of The Commerce Clause, there is a BIG difference in legislation related to owners or renters occupying a house. The moment money exchanges hands, it is a whole different ball of wax.


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