| NEW YORK, Aug. 10
NEW YORK, Aug. 10 In Scottsdale, Arizona, any
new home must come equipped with fire sprinklers, a decades-old
rule lauded by fire safety advocates nationwide. But 12 miles
away in Phoenix, city officials are not even allowed to discuss
adopting a requirement like Scottsdale's, because of a state law
passed last year.
The same is true in Texas, Alabama, Kansas and Hawaii, where
in the past four years state governments have enacted bills
forbidding cities and towns from requiring sprinklers in new
homes. A dozen have forbidden statewide building code councils
from including the requirement in their guidelines.
Advocates - including firefighters, fire safety groups and
the sprinkler industry - say sprinklers are needed more than
ever in new homes because of builders' heavy use of
prefabricated construction materials. The materials burn faster,
firefighters say, causing more destruction and making rescue
attempts more difficult.
The state laws forbidding sprinkler requirements are
unprecedented, public-safety advocates say, and underscore the
political clout of the home-building and real estate industries.
A Reuters review of lobbying records from five states that
considered sprinkler legislation since 2009 shows the groups
grossly outspent fire sprinkler advocates.
"This is the only code provision that I'm aware of in 30
years of being in this business, where we've seen a preemptive
strike that says, 'You can't even consider it. It's not
allowed,'" said Gary Keith, vice president of field operations
for the National Fire Protection Association, a nonprofit
advocacy organization. "That's unheard of with any other kind of
Four years ago the landscape looked strikingly different.
Coming off the housing market's peak years, scores of cities
adopted fire sprinkler rules despite opposition from builders.
And in 2009 sprinkler advocates cheered when the International
Code Council, a nonprofit organization that develops national
model building codes, voted that fire sprinklers should be
required in all new one- and two-family homes.
Then came the worst housing market in U.S. history and a
fragile economic recovery. Against that backdrop, lobbyists for
the home-building industry, which opposes mandatory sprinklers,
gained traction with lawmakers. Even as home building picks up
after years of stagnation -- the U.S. Census Bureau projects
more than 500,000 single-family housing starts this year -- many
lawmakers remain wary of sprinkler regulations.
"When you start mandating a fire sprinkler system, you are
going to price a lot of people out of these new homes," said Ned
Munoz, vice president of regulatory affairs for the Texas
Association of Home Builders, which lobbied heavily for
Although preemptive state laws have been imposed in other
public-health policy areas, laws preempting building or fire
safety regulations are unheard of, said Mark Pertschuk, an
expert on preemptive laws with the Prevention Institute, a
California nonprofit organization funded by private health
foundations, government agencies and public health groups.
"They haven't just taken away local control," Pertschuk
said. "They've stopped the community debate about public safety
Most cities have required sprinklers in larger multifamily
residences for decades. Fire safety advocates want to extend the
requirement to all single-family homes, often citing the
widespread use of lightweight construction, a building technique
that relies on prefabricated and engineered wood products.
Designed to carry a greater load with less material, the
prefabricated components are made from real or man-made wood
fragments held together by glue or metal fasteners. The
materials are commonly used to frame roofs and flooring.
Assembled in factories and shipped to construction sites, these
building components significantly cut down on construction time
and cost. Builders also say the materials are better for the
environment, because they use less wood, reducing deforestation.
But both real-life and test fires have shown that structures
with lightweight construction burn much faster and collapse
sooner than traditional solid-wood frame construction. That,
firefighters say, makes fires harder to fight and shortens the
time occupants have to escape a blaze.
"Not only is that second floor going to come down on your
head in a very short period of time, the roof is going to
collapse," said Danny Hunt, fire marshal in Nashville,
Tennessee, where he said roughly 90 percent of new homes use
Lightweight construction was introduced in the 1960s, and
became popular in ensuing decades. Today, by their own accounts,
the nation's largest builders use the materials extensively in
new homes, as do many custom home builders. Firefighters say
most homes built in at least the last 20 years contain the
The numbers of fires, deaths and injuries related to
lightweight construction are unknown, experts say, because most
fire reports don't record the construction method.
Firefighters reported more than 1,300 incidents from 2006 to
2010 in which lightweight construction hurt their ability to
suppress fires in single-family or multifamily homes, according
to a Reuters analysis of the Federal Emergency Management
Agency's National Fire Incident Reporting System, the nation's
largest fire database. At least 90 percent of those homes did
not have sprinklers installed. Twenty civilians were killed and
at least 260 firefighters and civilians were injured in those
An additional Reuters review of federal and local
firefighter fatality investigations found at least nine
firefighters killed since 2000 while battling residential
lightweight construction fires.
In May a police captain, his wife and two teenage daughters
were killed in a Carmel, New York, house fire started by his
son's cigarette butt, tossed in mulch. The fire spread so
quickly that the house collapsed within 10 minutes, which fire
officials attributed to the home's lightweight construction.
"I was there the morning of the fire," said Eric Gross, a
Carmel resident who serves as public information officer for the
Putnam County Bureau of Emergency Services. "It was horrible.
The firemen got there within a matter of minutes, but seconds
later the whole roof collapsed. Once the thing came down, that
was the end of it. There was nothing they could do."
Sprinkler systems would offset the danger created by
lightweight construction, firefighters say. A 2008 survey by the
Fire Protection Research Foundation found the systems add an
average $1.61 per square foot, or $3,864, to the cost of a new
2,400-square-foot home. Some insurance companies offer policy
discounts as high as 10 percent for homes with fire sprinklers.
California and Maryland are the only states that require
sprinklers in all new homes.
In many states, builders have successfully argued that
sprinklers are not only expensive but also unnecessary, thanks
to a drop in fire fatalities related to the widespread
installation of fire alarms in the past 30 years. Installing
sprinklers, they say, should be a homeowner's choice.
"I'm for fire safety," said Texas State Representative John
Otto, a Republican. "But you're taking the decision out of the
hands of the homeowner, and you're mandating something that
ought to be left to the homeowners."
Otto sponsored the Texas legislation, passed in 2009,
forbidding local jurisdictions from requiring sprinklers in new
one- and two-family homes. The law's greatest proponents,
builder and Realtor trade groups, spent between $1.7 million and
$3 million lobbying that year -- at least four times what
sprinkler advocates spent.
In Florida, home builders enlisted the political muscle of a
former political director for ex-Governor Jeb Bush to lobby
state legislators against sprinkler requirements. In 2010
lawmakers voted to block the state code-making body from
adopting any sprinkler mandates.
"There's nothing to stop somebody from having a fire
sprinkler system installed in their house," said Jack Glenn,
technical director for the Florida Home Builders Association.
"But to mandate it for the entire population is a very expensive
(Editing by Lee Aitken, Janet Roberts and Douglas Royalty)