July 17, 2011

Homeowners seeking safety turn to sprinkler systems

By Trevor Maxwell tmaxwell@mainetoday.com
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND -- Fire chief Kevin Guimond says there are lots of good reasons every new home should be required to have a sprinkler system.

Insurance savings. Higher long-term home values. Far less damage in case of a fire.

But in the chief's mind, the ongoing national and statewide debate about mandated residential sprinklers begins and ends with safety.

"They save lives," said Guimond, who has proposed an overhaul to the city's fire protection ordinance this year, including a provision that would require sprinkler systems for all new residential construction.

"You have a far greater chance of getting out of a house on fire with an alarm and with an operational sprinkler system. My job is to protect you from fire. I'm very comfortable promoting it because I think it's the right thing to do."

While no one disputes the safety impact, there's plenty of opposition to the legislation of sprinkler systems.

Homebuilders, real estate agents and banks have opposed such requirements for years. Those trade groups argue that the up-front costs -- generally $4,000 to $10,000 for an average-sized new home with a full basement -- puts homeownership out of reach for many families. Advances in smoke detectors have made homes safer than ever, they say. Others oppose sprinkler requirements purely on the basis of individual property rights.

"How far can the government go into our personal property? I think they are crossing the line here," said Gary Crosby, a commercial real estate developer from South Portland who has been active in civic affairs for more than a decade.

"Their name is not on the deed. If I own it, and I want to take the chance of not having a sprinkler in my house, that is my choice," Crosby said. "Commercial property is a different issue. I think requirements are appropriate there. But with a single family house I think you ought to keep your hands off."

The City Council is expected to take up the issue later this summer. The rewrite of the fire protection ordinance would require two votes by the council and a public hearing.

If South Portland mandates sprinklers for new homes, it would join Portland, Westbrook and Rockland as the only municipalities in the state with such a requirement. All of those ordinances were adopted in the past two years. Several other communities, including Gorham, Falmouth and Sanford, have limited ordinances that require sprinklers under certain circumstances, such as new homes in subdivisions that do not have water sources for fire departments. Scarborough's fire chief supports a mandate, but he has not brought forward a formal proposal to town officials.

These local efforts are part of a nationwide debate that has been going on since the mid-1980s, when Scottsdale, Ariz., became the first major city to mandate sprinklers in new homes. The trend spread from the Southwest to other parts of the country.

In 2006, as part of the building safety codes that it revises every three years, the National Fire Protection Association called for requiring sprinklers in all new single-family homes, duplexes and nightclubs with a capacity of more than 100 people. The International Code Council followed suit with a similar change to its standards in 2009.

Legislatures and municipalities generally look to the NFPA and ICC as models for state and local laws.

Only two states, California and Maryland, have adopted the sprinkler requirement. Lawmakers in Maine adopted most of the NFPA's life safety code, but they have left the decision on sprinklers up to individual communities.

Now that Portland and Westbrook have ordinances on the books, and South Portland is considering the requirement, industry experts say more towns and cities in Maine will likely follow their lead.

(Continued on page 2)

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