Sprinkler law debate renewed; bill calls for local control on mandate

Should Maryland be allowed to require home builders to install sprinklers?

A Maryland lawmaker from the Eastern Shore is looking to rekindle debate in Annapolis next month over a state law requiring fire-suppression sprinklers in new homes.

When the state sprinkler mandate was signed by then-Gov. Martin O'Malley in 2012, counties were allowed to opt out for a three-year period. Rural counties with well and septic systems largely decided not to require homebuilders to install sprinklers in newly constructed single-family homes.

But since July 1, those counties have had to abide by the mandate, which has led to a slowdown in proposals to build new homes, said Del. Christopher T. Adams, a Republican representing Caroline, Dorchester, Talbot and Wicomico counties.

"It's halted the construction of affordable single-family housing," Adams said. "Whether counties decide to mandate sprinklers is a decision they can make locally. Now we have data from counties demonstrating economic impact."

Adams has pre-filed a bill that calls for returning local control to rural counties that, unlike more urban counties in the center of the state, have not enacted their own sprinkler mandates because the costs are higher for homes on well water.

Fire safety officials said building costs are minimal compared with the benefit of saving lives. Prince George's County has had the mandate since 1992. A 15-year study showed that no fire fatalities occurred in any of the sprinkler-protected homes in the county, while 101 people died in fires in homes without the devices.

Maryland recorded 60 fire fatalities in 2015, down from 64 the year before, said Senior Deputy State Fire Marshal Bruce D. Bouch.

"So many of these deaths would not have occurred if they had residential fire sprinklers," he said.

He said residents should feel safest when they are sleeping, but fire fatalities occur most frequently between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

Last January, Don and Sandra Pyle and their four young grandchildren died in a night fire that swept through the Pyles' Annapolis-area mansion, which did not have sprinklers. As the year came to a close, a 41-year-old woman died in an early-morning fire Thursday in a Southwest Baltimore townhouse built in the late 1960s.

Bouch said sprinklers can prevent deaths. Since 1992, all new townhouses in Maryland have been required to include sprinklers; no deaths have been reported in those dwellings.

He said the state fire marshal's office, which championed the 2012 sprinkler legislation, would work with the Maryland State Firemen's Association to defeat Adams' bill.

On Jan. 19, the anniversary of the deadly fire at the Pyles' home, Bouch is scheduled to host a demonstration for lawmakers outside the State House to show the effectiveness of sprinklers.

A trash can fire will be started in two identically furnished rooms — one with a sprinkler, one without — to show the difference between a blaze that triggers a sprinkler and one that is allowed to burn.

The sprinkler mandate is not just about protecting the lives of residents, but also about protecting firefighters, Bouch said.

Adams said he believes sprinklers provide superior protection, but builders and consumers should be allowed to decide whether they want to pay for such devices.

"I'm not debating the nature of the sprinkler system and whether it's effective," Adams said. "I believe in customer choice, not government mandate."

Wicomico County Executive Bob Culver said his Eastern Shore area has felt an economic impact.

"We had a rush of 60 permits" before July 1, the end of the county's ability to opt out of the mandate, Culver said. "Since this went into effect July 1, we had one permit pulled. That has put us in a real quandary. What can we do to get people to build here?"

Culver said rural counties do not have the utility infrastructure to deliver the water needed for an effective sprinkler system. Many rural homes also do not have insulated areas — a garage or a basement — for the pump and water storage tank to avoid freezing temperatures.

"What fits Baltimore City or Prince George's County does not fit Wicomico and rural counties," Culver said.

He noted that drownings account for far more deaths than fire fatalities in Wicomico County, yet swimmers in Ocean City are not required to wear life jackets.

"You can't regulate and protect everyone from everything," he said.

Consumers can make the choice whether to pay for a sprinkler system when they are building a house; it should not be dictated by the government, he said.

William Castelli, senior vice president of government affairs for the Maryland Association of Realtors, said he has been hearing from real estate professionals in rural counties that the mandate is imposing significant costs for builders constructing homes on well water.

"I would not be surprised if there were a handful of bills from rural areas" on the issue, Castelli said.

Katie Maloney, chief lobbyist for the Maryland Building Industry Association, agreed. The association has no position on Adams' bill, but opposed the mandate three years ago. The group was joined by 16 counties that sent a letter in opposition.

The sprinkler mandate had been pushed for years by the state fire marshal, in part because new dwellings are built out of composite materials that are far more flammable than traditional building materials.

Bouch said the cost burden of the sprinkler mandate is exaggerated, especially because it can be spread over a 30-year mortgage.

"It's just like installing plumbing in your home," he said.


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