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State urges homeowners to install fire sprinkler systems

While Maryland has mandated that new home construction must include fire sprinklers, the State Fire Marshal wants residents of existing homes to install these life and property saving devices.

Effective Jan. 1, 2011, Maryland began enforcing a law that required all new one- and two-family homes to have fire sprinkler systems installed. Maryland and California are the only states that have a law that mandates such sprinkler systems in new home construction, according to Deputy State Fire Marshal Bruce Bouch.

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Bouch said 50 fire deaths occurred in one- and two-family homes in Maryland last year, including four fatalities in Carroll County. The majority of these fatal fires occurred in homes built prior to 2011, he said.

While the cost to install a fire sprinkler system in a new home would be relatively uniform and inexpensive — about $1.30 per square foot — the expense to add a sprinkler system to an existing home would vary, Bouch said. Much depends on how the home was constructed and if any additions have been added since, he added.

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"That's why it would not be cost effective to mandate something like that," Bouch said. "It's not that it can't be done but where is the money coming from? It would be a lot more labor intensive, but [a sprinkler system] would ensure [residents] have that next day."

Steve Fix, service department manager for Baltimore Fire Protection and Equipment, a company that installs fire sprinkler systems, said the cost of installing a system in a home depends on several other factors, including the homeowner's preferences and water source. The cost, for example, can be reduced if the system is exposed as opposed to hidden beneath the walls and ceiling, he said.

Also, because a certain level of pressure and water availability is required to activate the system, Fix said it could depend on whether the house is hooked up to a well or municipal water.

"The price may seem high but there's a lot of investigative work to ensure they work," Fix said. "Water damage is easier to repair than fire damage though. When these sprinklers go off, they put the fire out before the fire department even gets there, so you are looking at [preventing] a loss of life and loss of merchandise."

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Bouch said preventing damage to the structure is important, but it is secondary to saving lives.

"[Sprinkler systems] stop the excess damage, but the primary purpose is to allow people to escape the fire," Bouch said. "The side effect is it often puts the fire out and lessens the property damage."

When a fire starts in a home, only the closest sprinklers activate, he said. Contrary to popular belief, they do not respond to smoke but rather high heat temperatures. According to research, Bouch said, the risk of being injured or dying — as well as structural damage— in a home fire decreases significantly when the home is equipped with a fire sprinkler system.

For example, Bouch said two incidents on the Eastern Shore last year took place at nearly identical houses, but one had a sprinkler system while the other did not. Each fire began in the kitchen, but thanks to the sprinkler system in the first house, the fire was held to the stove, thus preventing any further damage to the house and allowing the family to escape. The other house suffered extensive damage and the family has been out of their house for a year, he said.

Another added benefit to installing a sprinkler, Bouch said, is an increase in value of the home. "People spend more money on a hot tub and that is usually replaced every 10 to 15 years and the sprinklers are good for the life of the home, so it's an added benefit when they go to sell the home," he said.

In addition, homeowners who install a system realize cost savings from insurance companies that routinely offer discounts between 5 and 30 percent off the fire coverage on homes, Bouch said.

"I have yet to see a valid argument against sprinklers," he said. "I have seen a bunch of bogus ones, like it costs too much. We don't have the financial backing in Annapolis to speak for us and the only thing we can afford is to provide the facts and science behind these life saving devices."

"Everything can dry out but nothing can be unburned."

410-857-3315

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For more information:

The Maryland State Fire Marshal recommends those who are interested in installing fire sprinkler systems in their home or those wishing to know more about the devices visit these websites:

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