State should adapt new fire sprinkler mandate

    Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:41 pm

    Standards exist in all industries. The building industry is no different; it has been regulated in Wisconsin since 1914. These standards, researched and developed by experts in their respective fields, exist for good reason. Not only do they help ensure safety and quality, but they help consumers gain confidence in the product.

    Over the last year, the Wisconsin Department of Commerce (DOC) has conducted research and meetings of 10 code councils to determine the course of action for our state building code. Following approval from a majority of advisors on these code councils, the DOC recommended adopting the national standard for our state building code.

    The national standard was developed by the International Code Council (ICC), a nonprofit organization dedicated to developing uniform model construction codes. The ICC released its 2006 recommendations in the International Building Code (IBC), which includes provisions on construction materials, HVAC and fire sprinkler protection.   

    Forty-six percent of other states have adopted the IBC unchanged – keeping the fire sprinkler language that identifies a standard for multi-family dwellings. Specifically, the IBC recommends fire sprinkler systems in newly constructed residential dwellings of three units or greater. The three-unit standard has been the national standard since the 2003 version of the IBC. The multi-family threshold for fire sprinklers in Wisconsin has been at 21 units and greater for more than a decade. 

    Fire sprinkler systems provide the best protection for the citizens who reside in these buildings and the firefighters who respond in the case of a fire. The model codes reflect that fact and builders and developers across the country are beginning to see the economic and life safety benefits of these life-saving systems.

    As a fire chief and a taxpayer, I am not only concerned about protecting citizens and firefighters from fire, but I am concerned about protecting the tax base in local communities. When you examine the injuries that firefighters sustain and the resulting worker’s compensation claims, these injuries represent some of the most expensive tax liabilities that exist. The cost to rebuild lost property in a community after a fire can be very expensive. The loss of lives and property to fire has such a tremendous effect – some communities never recover.

    It begs the question, why is Wisconsin so far behind what has been labeled the national standardω

    Part of it is the attitude that fire happens elsewhere – that fire fatalities always happen to other people. In this country alone, more than 4,000 people die each year from fires, 80 percent in home fires. In fact, Milwaukee just lost the life of a 28-year old woman in a tragic fire in a nine-story building not protected with fire sprinklers.

    Part of it is the assumption that fire sprinkler systems are new and cost too much. It was Bonnie Woodruff who is consistently quoted in the media about the importance of sprinkler systems, saying “What is the cost of a lifeω” when referring to the death of her son from fire.

    I personally value a life-saving device in a home vs. better carpeting or high-end marble countertops – both of which cost more than installing a fire sprinkler system.

    Advances in technology are making the components of fire sprinkler systems more economical, thus keeping the material and installation expenses down – to approximately 1 to 2 percent of the total building cost.

    Also, additional financial savings can be captured under provision in the 2006 IBC. Builders and developers can save on building lot costs with reduced street widths, smaller diameter water mains and hydrant spacing. As a result, there is an increase in area for the building.

    With the use of sprinkler systems, the distance allowed between a sprinklered building and roads accessed by the fire department can be greater. Through the use of trade-ups, construction costs can be reduced through infrastructure savings; therefore maintaining a higher quality product for their customers. A builder has more flexibility with construction materials used.

    Fire sprinkler systems have been around since the 1860’s. This is not a new thing; all we are doing in this building code is following current standards.

    The bottom line is: Wisconsin is not being cutting-edge. We are simply bringing ourselves up to the standard in building codes.

    Gregg Cleveland is the fire chief for the City of La Crosse and is past president of the Wisconsin State Fire Chiefs Association. He also is chairman of the Wisconsin Department of Commerce Fire Prevention Council.

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