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Fire chiefs want sprinklers in all new single-family homes

  • BRYANT FUKUTOMI / BFUKUTOMI@STARADVERTISER.COM
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Protecting single-family homes with fire-protection sprinklers makes good sense when it comes to safety, but is it worth the cost?

That’s the question local government and building industry officials are wrestling with in an initiative to require sprinkler systems in all new single-family homes and duplexes built in Hawaii.

A state panel responsible for updating building codes in Hawaii is considering adopting the regulation, which would make homes safer but could add $5,000 to $6,000 to the cost of a 1,000-square-foot house.

The State Fire Council, which represents Hawaii’s four county fire chiefs, is trying to broaden public support of the issue through a legislative resolution asking the Building Code Council to adopt the sprinkler requirement. The House Committee on Public Safety and Military Affairs passed the resolution Thursday with an 8-0 vote. The resolution advances to committees on Housing and Water, Land and Ocean Resources.

Local county fire chiefs testified in favor of the measure. The Building Industry Association-Hawaii testified in opposition, suggesting that sprinklers could be an option for homebuyers. A trade alliance between contractors and the Hawaii Carpenters Union supports the intent of mandatory sprinklers in new homes, but expresses concern over its impact on affordable housing.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

…on fire sprinklers in homes, visit firesprinklerinitiative.org.

To see simulations of burning homes with and without sprinklers, visit youtube.com/watch?v=CXZQWQfI1iU.

The effort is part of a national movement. Now as the debate heats up locally, there are sparks that suggest the issue could become contentious considering that housing costs in Hawaii are already exorbitant.

Hawaii is one of 16 states where sprinkler systems in single-family homes aren’t required in at least one city or county, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

Hawaii regulations require sprinkler systems in new construction of high-rises over 75 feet, townhomes and most large commercial buildings. Townhome sprinkler systems were mandated by the state in 2009, though a lag in adoption by counties might still allow some townhomes to be built without sprinklers until later this year.

Extending the requirement to single-family homes should be the next step, said Lloyd Rogers, administrative assistant for the State Fire Council. "It’s proven that sprinklers are going to reduce fire loss and fire deaths and injuries," he said. "It really comes down to cost."

The Building Industry Association-Hawaii opposes a single-family home sprinkler requirement and argues that sprinklers will further inflate high prices for new homes that are already built with dramatically superior fire-safety features compared with older homes where sprinklers would make a bigger difference.

"Mandating fire sprinklers in new homes does not target the homes and issues where fire deaths are occurring," the trade association said in a written statement. "As a society, we cannot afford to deny needed housing for the sake of new requirements without proven benefits."

Evan Fujimoto, president of local homebuilder Graham Builders, said that before endorsing a sprinkler requirement, he needs more specifics about costs, designs and other information including how regulations would apply to homes not connected to a water utility system.

However, the Honolulu Fire Department has made what Fujimoto called a compelling case for sprinklers. "This is something we’ll be following closely," he said.

Nationally, the movement to require sprinklers in new single-family homes has been growing since an organization in charge of updating U.S. building code standards, the International Code Council, added sprinklers to its minimum safety standards for single-family homes in 2009.

Since then the standard has garnered strong support from local fire departments and the National Fire Protection Association, which have pushed to have the ICC standard adopted by state, city and county building codes.

The NFPA says sprinklers are an affordable, unobtrusive, reliable and maintenance-free way to significantly reduce property and life loss.

Sprinkler systems, which have been in use for many years, activate automatically in reaction to significant heat change but not to smoke, steam or smoke alarm activation. Often, only one sprinkler will deploy in response to a fire and can extinguish flames before spreading. Other times, sprinklers give occupants more time to escape and avoid injury or death. Sprinklers also can reduce the number and duration of responses by firefighters.

The NFPA, based on a 2008 sampling of home sprinkler installations in 10 cities, said costs ranged from 38 cents to $3.66 per square foot of house area covered by the system, or $1.61 on average. Local advocates estimate the cost in Hawaii would be $5 to $6 per square foot.

The national organization has lobbied hard to make sprinklers mandatory in single-family home construction, producing dramatic video demonstrations, publishing a list refuting arguments against home sprinklers and suggesting that opponents don’t value the price of saving lives and preventing injuries.

The risk of dying in a home fire is reduced by 50 percent using smoke alarms compared with 80 percent for sprinklers, the NFPA said. The organization also said sprinklers reduce the average property loss by 71 percent.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 377,000 home fires in the United States in 2009 which killed 2,565 people and injured another 13,050, not including firefighters.

The NFPA said four states have adopted the requirement for sprinklers in new single-family homes, though 34 states have at least one county or city requiring home sprinklers. California leads the way with 146 cities and counties requiring home sprinklers.

However, opposition, largely from homebuilders, is fighting the initiative in a countermove that has led to anti-sprinkler legislation introduced in 14 mainland states this year.

Those against sprinklers say they are expensive, difficult to maintain, can accidentally activate and aren’t a cost-effective safety improvement over smoke alarms.

No anti-sprinkler legislation has been introduced in Hawaii.

Instead, the State Building Code Council has formed an investigative committee that includes building industry representatives to produce a consensus on the issue.

The investigative committee has recommended that sprinklers be required in new homes effective January 2014. The council has yet to vote on the recommendation.

 

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