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Mandating residential sprinkler systems a costly, unproven way to reduce fire deaths | READER COMMENTARY

Julian Hernandez of B2C Mechanical works on a sprinkler system at Lennar at Heritage at Stonebridge, the newest 55+ active adult housing community construction site, on Friday, Dec. 10, 2021, in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal via AP)
Julian Hernandez of B2C Mechanical works on a sprinkler system at Lennar at Heritage at Stonebridge, the newest 55+ active adult housing community construction site, on Friday, Dec. 10, 2021, in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal via AP) (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/AP)

I enjoyed your editorial on the sensible fire safety precautions that we should all follow this winter, especially in a season that may see emergency services stretched thin during yet another wave of new COVID-19 infections (”Winter is peak season for house fires; take precautions,” Dec. 31). I nearly started a fire when I left a plastic gadget too close to a burner; everyone should make sure to keep clear space around the stovetop. The part about not leaving candles unattended is sound; if, as in our Jewish family, you light candles every Friday evening to honor the Sabbath, be sure to keep an eye on them and place the lighted candles on a clear countertop, where they won’t accidentally light up anything else if they should fall over.

My curiosity was piqued by your claim that a 2012 state law mandating sprinkler systems in new homes was responsible for the decline in fire deaths (along with the law mandating all smoke alarms be installed with 10-year sealed-in batteries). I won’t speak to the effect of the latter law but only about the sprinkler law. Our home, like most in Baltimore or in the state, is older than this law and does not have a sprinkler system; it seems if such a law could help it would have a very limited effect if it could not be applied to the vast majority of residences. Of course, the reason we do not try to install sprinklers in every single residence regardless of age is because the enormous cost would not justify the marginal gain in safety. This, in turn, raises the question of whether the added cost to new construction is really justified by any marginal safety gain.

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It turns out this sprinkler law was not without opposition, as The Sun reported on legislative movement from the Eastern Shore in 2016 to allow counties to opt out. This certainly does seem like an issue better resolved at the local level and the state law should be amended or repealed and replaced with local mandates. For instance, rural homes supplied by wells may find it more expensive than equivalent city homes supplied by public water systems.

I also wasn’t able to find properly controlled studies proving that the sprinkler law is responsible in any significant way for the decline in fire deaths. The connection is certainly suggestive and not implausible on its face, but if fire deaths had been declining anyway before 2012, it’s possible the sprinkler mandate had nothing to do with the continued decline since that date. Moreover, if only a small minority of all buildings are covered by the mandate, we need to take that into account when figuring out the statistical effect of the mandate on the decline in total fire deaths.

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As we are becoming more conscious of housing affordability issues, we should be seriously considering repeal of any regulations that unnecessarily increase cost of housing. Most new construction is aimed at higher-income buyers, so those who are already more in a position to afford sprinkler systems will see the benefit of the requirement, while poorer residents continue to live in older sprinkler-less buildings. But many studies show that any increase in total housing supply helps to lower prices and rents even for those living in older homes on lower incomes. Arguably, therefore, lifting the mandate would help lower housing costs for all by making it cheaper to build new homes without significantly diminishing fire safety.

Jonathan Gress-Wright, Baltimore

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