Sprinkler Change To Stay In Code After Much Debate

SNOW HILL – Despite lingering technical and cost questions, a divided County Commission attempted to settle whether sprinklers would be required in new homes, or whether the county would opt out of that rule, determining after two failed votes that the sprinklers would stay in the building code.

Commissioner Virgil Shockley repeatedly asked for clarification of both the technical requirements for a sprinkler system and the cost and could get a straight answer on neither. Shockley said he is also concerned about the few companies in the area qualified to do the work. He feels the matter should have been tabled while staff determined the answers to those questions, but the other commissioners ignored those questions and chose to move on, attempting two votes.

The state of Maryland officially adopted the International Building Code (IBC) recently, but counties are permitted to opt out of parts of the code if there is a condition “peculiar” to the county making the regulation a hardship. Otherwise, the full code goes into effect for new homes Jan. 1.

The commissioners had the option to keep the sprinkler requirement, to eliminate the sprinkler requirement, or to apply it in some places, such as areas with public water supplies, and not others, such as areas on wells.

“The fact it makes a home cost more is not peculiar,” said county attorney Sonny Bloxom.

The fact that the county has a large rural community relying on wells could be considered a peculiar condition, Bloxom said.

The commissioners held a public hearing Tuesday, which lasted three and a half hours. Ten people spoke in favor of the sprinkler regulations, and 10 spoke against it.

County Fire Marshal Jeff McMahon spoke first, coming out strongly in favor of the sprinkler requirement. Worcester County already requires residential sprinklers in townhouses, McMahon said, and they have proven their worth.

In Worcester County, since 2000, there have been 42 documented home sprinkler activations. Only one of those fires spread past the original unit because it started outside.

Prince George’s County recently released a report on 15 years of sprinkler usage. In 15 years, according to the report, there have been no fire fatalities in sprinklered homes, McMahon said.

Sprinklers would only be required in living spaces. Most fires begin in kitchens and bedrooms, studies show.

Well water sources can handle sprinklers, he said, which only need to use water for seven to 10 minutes.

“It’s like having a firefighter in that room immediately when the fire starts,” said McMahon.

Firefighters can take up to nine minutes to arrive on scene, on average, and an average of 16 to 20 minutes before they get water on the fire, while sprinklers take a minute and a half at most to activate, McMahon said. Flashovers can occur within three to nine minutes. Sprinklers activate before that.

William Barnard, Maryland State Fire Marshal, also spoke strongly in favor of requiring sprinkler systems, which he called “life safety” systems.

“They protect residents and firefighters alike…there is simply no compelling reason to oppose these regulations,” he said.

Insurance companies offer 5- to 15-percent discounts on homeowners insurance when a house has sprinklers, Jim Fowler of Folwer insurance said.

Adam Mason of Columbia Fire Protection said that sprinkler systems cost around $1.50 to $2 per square foot, but later, others disagreed, saying it is too low.

People are 80 percent more likely to survive a fire with sprinklers, said Steve Reddish, who installs sprinklers.

The opposition was concerned with the cost of the sprinkler systems in new homes and the effect on the nearly non-existent housing market.

“I think the biggest concern for my business is obviously cost. What are these systems truly going to cost?” asked builder Brian Rush. The decision should be left up to the homeowners, he added.

“I think the people are just tired of things being laid on top of them and on top of them and on top of them,” said Reese Cropper III of Insurance Management Group. It could also affect affordable housing, he feels.

Edward Smith hopes to build a retirement house in the county. “I think I should have the choice of adding that expense,” he said.

The commissioners were split on the matter.

“Giving it as an option, my personal belief, is the way to go,” said Commission President Bud Church.

Commissioner Judy Boggs felt that the zero fire fatalities in 15 years found in Prince George’s County study was compelling.

“I’d like to go back and take one more shot looking at this again,” said Shockley.
“What are we going to look at?” said Church.
“I need to do some more homework,” Shockley said.

Commissioner Jim Purnell had mixed feelings, he said, since affordable housing is an important issue, but saving lives should be a priority. However, he thought it should be an option.

“How much more information can we get, Virgil?” he asked.

Commissioner Linda Busick said, “I would opt on the issue of safety. “I would err on the sides of our fire departments who have asked that we support this.”

Commissioner Louise Gulyas suggested splitting the difference and requiring sprinkler systems in new homes on public water, looking at the safety issue.

“We all are,” said Church.
“I don’t get that feeling,” said Gulyas.
“In rural areas, firefighters are further at risk because they have farther to go,” said Boggs.
Commissioner Bobby Cowger understand the public safety aspect but not the mandatory nature of it.

“There’s no question they help save lives but there’s nothing that’s 100 percent,” said Cowger.

A motion to opt out failed, and a motion to take just the well-served properties out also failed.

The sprinkler requirement will remain in the building code unless the commissioners revisit the matter. Sources say another attempt to eliminate the sprinkler requirement from the building code will be made in December.