SNOW HILL – The Worcester County Commissioners’ plans to not enforce residential sprinkler requirements are drawing criticism from fire safety officials.
State Fire Marshal Brian Geraci said this week the county would be in violation of state law if it permitted those building single family homes to opt out of installing sprinklers. He said the commissioners had lost sight of the fact that the purpose of the sprinkler requirement was to save lives.
“Elected officials are supposed to be looking at the safety of the community,” he said. “Clearly that’s not the case here.”
The commissioners, however, maintain that the sprinkler law is an unfunded mandate that puts an undue burden on anyone interested in building a home.
“I agree sprinklers help save lives,” Commissioner Joe Mitrecic said. “But is it the government’s place to mandate that somebody has them in their house?”
At their meeting Jan. 22, the commissioners voted to have staff prepare a building permit that would allow people to opt out of installing residential fire sprinklers. Since 2015, automatic fire sprinkler systems have been required in new residential dwellings.
As they spoke in favor of the proposed permit—which will be forwarded to the state for comment once it’s completed—the commissioners said sprinklers added to building costs and weren’t practical for homes served by wells. They pointed out that Allegany County was not requiring builders to install sprinklers.
Lorraine Carli, vice president of outreach and advocacy for the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) addressed the commissioners’ comments in a blog post Jan. 30.
“One of the arguments being used by Worcester County Commissioners in Maryland to try and opt out of the statewide requirement for home fire sprinklers in new homes is that sprinklers thwart building, a notion that has been proven erroneous in other areas…,” she wrote, citing an NFPA study from 2009 that indicated sprinkler requirements had no adverse impact on housing supply and costs. “This is an example of unsupported reasoning being used to allow substandard homes to be built and deny new homeowners the protection home fire sprinklers afford.”
Geraci had a similar reaction.
“We’ve been down this path before,” he said. “It’s inaccurate information they throw out to confuse the public.”
Geraci said he was disappointed that elected officials were still fighting the sprinkler mandate years after it went into effect.
“It sets a bad precedent,” he said. “Why have Annapolis pass laws if local jurisdictions won’t support them?”
He pointed out that 71 people died in fires in Maryland last year.
“We’re trying to reduce the deaths here in Maryland,” he said. “This is the way to do it.”
Geraci confirmed that Allegany County was not requiring sprinklers in new single-family homes because it had never adopted the latest version of the International Building Code. He said his office had been working with the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation to bring the county into compliance.
“It falls under the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation because it’s a building code issue,” he said.
Geraci said the state would never mandate sprinkler systems in existing homes because retrofitting them would be too expensive. Incorporating a sprinkler system into a new home, however, should only amount to about 1 percent of the home’s price, according to Geraci.
The commissioners question that figure. Mitrecic, a builder, says installing a sprinkler system typically adds thousands to the cost of new home. The price gets even higher for those with well water, as additional equipment is often required.
“There’s a lot of moving pieces to this that weren’t taken into consideration when these bills were passed,” he said.
Commissioner Chip Bertino agreed. He said an added $10,000 on the cost of a house would be too much for some people.
“I think we’re pricing housing out of the market for a lot of people,” he said.
Geraci maintains that sprinklers play a critical role in saving people’s lives when fires occur.
“It gives folks time to escape,” he said. “You only have three to four minutes to escape a home fire these days.”
Worcester County Fire Marshal Jeff McMahon told the commissioners the county’s average fire response time was 17 minutes.
“You’re not going to survive a fire in 17 minutes,” Geraci said. “In these newer homes, they’re lightweight construction. They burn quicker.”
Geraci also disputed the commissioners’ assertions that sprinklers were hurting the local housing industry. He said the number of building permits issued in Worcester County had risen in recent years. There were 110 permits issued in 2016, 127 permits issued in 2017 and 133 permits issued in 2018.
“The numbers have been steadily going up in Worcester County,” Geraci said. “It’s not about the expense of the home. It’s about politics. This is about Annapolis telling local jurisdictions what they have to do and they don’t like it.”
Commissioner Jim Bunting, however, said he thought the state had yielded to the sprinkler industry when it passed the mandate. He said state officials hadn’t been concerned about safety when they’d provided counties with the option of opting out of the requirement in the years before the full mandate went into effect. He also questioned the effectiveness of sprinklers, as they were only required to have seven minutes worth of water. He likened the effect to that of a smoke detector.
“It doesn’t put the fire out it just gets you wet when you’re trying to get out,” he said.
Bunting stressed that individuals, not the government, should choose whether or not to install fire sprinklers.
“If you’re building a single family home it should be your choice,” he said. “It’s that simple. I wouldn’t take the right away for anybody to put them in.”
When asked why the county was fighting the mandate now, Bunting said it was something the commissioners had been discussing for years.
“Ever since they took the option to opt out away and made it mandatory we’ve been discussing it,” he said. “We finally had a group, every one of us felt the same way. It just isn’t fair.”
Bertino, who called the state law oppressive, said that since the mandate went into effect he’d heard from people on a regular basis that it added tens of thousands of dollars to the price of their homes.
“The cumulative effect of that, for me and the other commissioners, made it time to do something about it,” he said.
The commissioners acknowledge that they’re facing an uphill battle. Bunting said he considered the proposed building permit a test, a chance for the county to push the issue.
“We’re going to find out what we can do,” he said.
“I’d imagine the state is going to threaten us with some sort of ruling,” he said. “But this is the first step in the state looking at this.”
He says the sprinkler mandate is a cause for concern for all rural counties in Maryland.
“This is a huge topic,” Mitrecic said. “We may be the first but I’m sure we won’t be the last to challenge it.”