Berlin Postpones Sprinkler Decision After Public Hearing

BERLIN – Whether Berlin will decide to exempt itself from installing mandatory sprinklers in new one- and two-family dwellings is still up in the air after Monday’s public hearing.

After more than an hour of presentations on both sides of the debate by fire marshals, realtors and private citizens, the Mayor and Council delayed making a final decision on residential fire sprinklers until its Dec. 13 meeting.

“There are a lot of myths and falsities about sprinklers,” said Worcester County Fire Marshal Jeff McMahon. “Sprinklers save lives.”

McMahon supported his argument that the council should not opt out of the mandatory statewide installation of sprinklers in new homes with statistics, case studies and a nine-minute video showcasing the effectiveness of sprinklers.

“The sprinklers activate in 90-seconds,” McMahon said. “It’s like having your volunteer fire company arrive on scene immediately. … You’ll need about 300 gallons of water [for a sprinkler to put out a fire], compared to thousands if the fire department needs to show up.”

McMahon compared the 90-second sprinkler response time to the nationwide firefighter average response time, which was between 16 and 20 minutes before water would actually start flowing on scene. He admitted that Berlin’s centrally located fire department had a slightly better average, but that it was still nowhere near the 90-second mark.

Supporting his colleague, Maryland State Fire Marshal Jeff Barnard also addressed the council in support of mandatory sprinkler installation. He also stressed that while smoke-alarms may get many people out of the house, those who are incapacitated, either through handicap, age or a situation such as intoxication, might not be able to escape the fire even if alarmed. With a sprinkler system, however, the incapacitated would be much better protected.

As for the occasional malfunction with sprinklers and ensuing water damage, Barnard did not believe it should sway the council.

“Everything dries out, but nothing un-burns,” he said.

Berlin Fire Chief Derrick Simpson lent his support to the fire marshals, going on record for the mandatory installation of sprinklers.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, local realtors made their own presentation, this time against making the systems mandatory. Their main argument was that the cost would be too high, especially with the terrible housing market, and that whether a home has a sprinkler system should be a decision left to the owner, who could choose whether to deal with the additional expense.

“I strongly support the safety of the community, but not at the cost of making homes unaffordable,” Coastal Association of Realtors President Pat Terrill said.

Terrill ventured that smoke-alarms and the central location of the Berlin Fire Department were more than enough practical protection and that attaching more cost to a home in what has been some of the slowest real estate sales months in decades could be crippling.

John Kotoski, president of the Eastern Shore Building Association, agreed and pointed out that Berlin would not be unique by opting out of the ordinance.

“Twenty-seven states have opted out of the mandatory sprinkler ordinance,” he said. “Only two, Maryland and California, have opted in. Twelve states are pending and two haven’t brought it up yet.”

Kotoski reinforced the high cost of sprinklers should be a choice left to the owner. Additionally, he cited that there would be extra costs associated with a sprinkler system that the fire marshals did not think of, such as the expense of simply working the systems into the design of buildings and complications that could be generated during construction.

Kotoski listed some statistics of his own, saying that there was a 99.45 percent chance of surviving a home fire if hardwired smoke-alarms were installed.

“The problem is not homes without sprinklers,” he stated. “The problem is homes without working smoke-detectors.”

Berlin resident Joe Sexauer addressed the council in favor of mandatory installation.

“The state allows exemption from the ordinance for peculiar circumstances,” he said. “I don’t believe just having a central fire department is peculiar enough to justify an exemption. … the overall scheme of things this is a no-brainer.”

When it came time for the council to finally vote, most appeared to still be on the fence. Councilwoman Paula Lynch asked those in attendance to raise their hands if they were Berlin residents and approximately half of the audience put hands in the air. She then asked those residents if they would install the system optionally to again raise their hands; fewer went up this time, but there was still a scattering.

Lynch said she “wrestled with the mandate.” Councilwoman Lisa Hall agreed, but did admit that she was impressed by the sprinkler systems

“I would put one in my house,” she stated.

In the end, the council tabled the vote hoping to find more information on the possibility of insurance reductions and other pertinent data, and also to allow the council time to digest the sheer amount of information presented.