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County to seek state input before deciding on sprinkler systems

July 06, 2010|By HEATHER KEELS

After listening to impassioned arguments for and against mandatory home fire sprinkler systems during a public hearing Tuesday morning, the Washington County Commissioners were left wondering whether they had any say in whether or not to require them.

The state of Maryland has adopted the 2009 International Residential Code, which introduces a controversial requirement for fire sprinkler systems in all new single-family homes. Fire officials have supported the requirement, citing sprinklers' life-saving potential, while many local builders have argued the costly systems should be a personal choice.

Some of the commissioners expressed interest Tuesday in a local amendment removing or modifying the sprinkler requirement in the locally adopted version of the code, but it was unclear whether such a change would be allowed.

"It has always been the understanding that those local amendments were all right to do as long as they don't lessen the state (code)," county Permits and Inspections Director Daniel F. DiVito said.

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DiVito said that at a meeting he attended, a state code official "looked at me and told me specifically that he would consider us lessening the code" if the county adopted a local amendment modifying the sprinkler requirement.

The commissioners said they would seek a clear "yes" or "no" from the state as to whether a local amendment removing or modifying the sprinkler requirement would be legal.

Reached by phone after the meeting, Raquel Guillory, spokeswoman for the Maryland Attorney General's office, said the office could not respond to that question in the media until a response was provided to county officials.

Commissioner James F. Kercheval said at this point, he was not in favor of pushing forward the single-family home sprinkler requirement if an amendment was possible, but he wanted to do some more research and might change his mind.

Commissioner Terry Baker said he was a "people's-choice advocate," though he also understood the value of potential lives saved, and wanted to know whether or not the commissioners had a choice of adopting the requirement.

Commissioner William J. Wivell said he saw both sides of the argument. He asked about possibly limiting the requirement to certain circumstances or waiving it in certain instances, based on factors like square footage, public water availability or distance from a fire company.

During Tuesday's public hearing, three local home builders argued against mandatory home fire sprinklers while seven people, most from the firefighting community, spoke in support of the requirement.

Taylor Oliver of Oliver Homes said he thought home sprinklers would eventually become the standard, but spoke of a "timing issue" and asked if the commissioners could delay the requirement for a year. As proposed, the requirement would take effect for new homes built after Jan. 1, 2011.

Local builder Wes Churchey said he was "all for" sprinkler systems, but thought their installation should be an individual's choice.

Tim Fields, president of Royal House Construction Inc., talked about the estimated $10,000 cost a sprinkler system would add to a new home. Combined with rising costs related to grading, stormwater and soil conservation requirements, that could stop someone from being able to afford to build a house, he said.

"Automatic sprinklers in one- and two-family homes may be a thing of the future, but I don't think they're something that this county can afford at this time," he said.

Several of those who support the requirement said building techniques and materials have changed over the years, causing homes to burn faster and hotter, and creating a need for residential fire sprinklers.

For example, Deputy Chief State Fire Marshal Jason Mowbray said homes now have more open layouts, more synthetic materials and often use lightweight I-beam trusses instead of conventional lumber.

"Modern construction methods and materials should be matched with modern fire-protection systems and methods," he said.

Mowbray said smoke alarms are important, but they are not enough.

"Even functioning smoke alarms by themselves have been found to be insufficient in alerting occupants, not providing enough opportunity to escape the toxic smoke and flames produced by an uncontrolled fire," Mowbray said, adding that last year in Maryland, smoke alarms were present and functioning properly in fires that led to 19 fatalities.

The commissioners also heard from Cathy Hedrick of Charles County, Md., who said her son, a firefighter, died, along with a child he was trying to rescue in a house fire.

"Some have said sprinklers are a luxury, not a necessity," Hedrick said. "Well, at one time we thought seat belts were a luxury, not a necessity."

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