Reading Time: 7 minutes
Seven firefighters were injured, one with severe burns, in this May 25, 2008 fire in Loudoun County, Virginia. Local officials say a sprinkler system would have prevented injuries.

Firefighters and sprinkler manufacturers are locked in a fierce national battle against home builders over a proposed requirement for sprinklers in all new homes and townhouses, with a crucial vote scheduled in Virginia early next week.

After years of debate at the state and municipal level, the fight took on new importance last fall when the International Code Council, a leading national safety organization, endorsed the concept. The new standard would take effect for homes built in 2011. Not since the widespread adoption of regulations mandating smoke detectors in private homes in the 1970s have the builders, the firefighters, and the safety device-makers faced such a showdown. After smoke detectors were required, fire deaths in the United States fell more than 40 percent from about 6,000 a year to roughly 3,500 annually, according to the federal Department of Homeland Security. And while advocates argue that new sprinkler ordinances could drastically suppress property loss and reduce the number of deaths or injuries in home fires, home builders say sprinklers provide little additional protection and that the only real winners will be the sprinkler manufacturers.

If the Virginia Board of Housing and Community Development adopts the proposed requirement at its July 27 meeting — the current staff recommendation is to deny it — then the commonwealth would be among the first to do so. State agencies in Pennsylvania and New Jersey have recommended adoption of the change but builders are threatening to take the battle to those state legislatures. This week, a state committee in Michigan voted 10-2 to reject the new requirement. The building industry has succeeded in lobbying for prohibitive legislation in at least three states — Idaho, North Dakota, and Texas.

Seven firefighters were injured, one with severe burns, in this May 25, 2008 fire in Loudoun County, Virginia. Local officials say a sprinkler system would have prevented injuries.“With this issue, the benefit does not justify the cost,” said Michael L. Toalson, executive vice president for the Home Builders Association of Virginia (HBAV). “Today’s modern house, with its many features to prevent loss of life and home, is adequate. This whole thing is a result of efforts on behalf of sprinkler manufacturers to change the building code to benefit their own industry.”

Firefighters disagree. The proposed requirement “will save lives,” asserts Alan W. Perdue, the Guilford County, North Carolina, emergency services director, and a member of the International Association of Fire Chiefs’ board of directors, which has endorsed the new code.. “It’s one single item that can truly help us decrease the number of injuries and fatalities annually.”

Jeff Shapiro, executive director of the International Residential Code Fire Sprinkler Coalition, a group of fire service and sprinkler industry advocates, said the building industry has blocked a trend toward requiring sprinklers for nearly a decade, just as it opposed smoke detector requirements in the 1970s.

“They have effectively been able to block this change for a number of years,” Shapiro said. “This is really the culmination of a long effort on the part of the people in the fire safety industry.”

Fight over “model code”

The builders charge that the only reason the question has reached the national level is because the sprinkler manufacturers’ lobby participated in “hijacking” the code-making process.

When the International Code Council (ICC), an organization that promotes model codes for building safety and fire prevention in commercial and residential construction, held its annual meeting last September in Minneapolis, 73 percent of the roughly 1,700 members present favored the sprinkler requirement. The code council, created in 1994, has an open membership of about 50,000 code enforcement officials, architects, engineers, designers, and contractors, any of whom can attend its annual meetings, though only 28,000 are eligible to vote on the proposed model codes, which are typically adopted by most states, cities, and counties.

The Home Builders Association of Virginia’s website features a headline declaring “Fire Officials Hijack ICC Code Process,” accusing the home sprinkler industry of packing the 2008 ICC meeting with firefighters, whose travel costs were paid by the sprinkler industry. In fact, an ICC committee had recommended against the new requirement, but the membership in attendance that day supported the change anyway.

“Today’s modern house, with its many features to prevent loss of life and home, is adequate.” Michael L. Toalson, Home Builders Association of Virginia.

The ICC Appeals Board considered a National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) complaint regarding the firefighters’ travel expenses, but concluded “by unanimous vote that there was no material and significant irregularity of process or procedure” in the adoption of the new code. The building industry will not have another chance to change the ICC code until 2011 because changes are considered on a three-year cycle.

Shapiro conceded that the Sprinkler Code Coalition paid for some firefighters’ travel (he said he didn’t know how many), but said the paid travel was a response to a similar action the home builders had taken at a previous meeting. He also pointed out that anyone who accepted money from the coalition was required to sign a contract indicating that they were not being asked to vote for or against the code change.

Homebuilder’s executive Toalson said that among the 1,700 voting members who participated in the sprinkler code votes, he believed roughly 900 of them were fire service members. The code council could not confirm Toalson’s claim, and Shapiro said he didn’t know how many fire service members were present.

Do sprinklers save lives?

According to the National Fire Protection Agency, an international nonprofit established in 1896, the fatality rate in homes with sprinklers is 80 percent lower than homes without sprinklers. The National Association of Home Builders counters that the survival rate for homes with operating smoke detectors is nearly 99.5 percent, and thus the added protection addresses a tiny proportion of fire-related deaths. The National Fire Protection Agency endorses the use of sprinklers in homes.

The home builders’ association estimates the cost to install a sprinkler system in a roughly 2,200-square-foot home at $5,573. When factoring in financing costs, brokerage commissions, and other related costs, the builders estimate costs of nearly $6,700 per home — and up to $10,000 per home in rural areas, Toalson said. The fire service industry relies on estimates posted by the U.S. Fire Administration, a federal agency, which sets the cost at $2,200 to $3,300 for the same size home.

Toalson argues that the increased cost of a home, especially in recessionary times, is not a trivial matter, even when weighed against the potential loss of life. “Price matters,” he said. “We need the housing industry to recover for this economy to recover. This is not the time to add this expense, especially when the statistics do not justify the costs.”

That argument is bolstered by Steve Orlowski, the code expert hired by the NAHB to address the sprinkler issue. “Because smoke alarms are such an inexpensive life-safety technology and are performing at such high rates,” Orlowski said, “to throw on top of that the requirement for residential sprinklers … we just don’t see that it’s a cost-effective life-safety device to be installed and required in all homes.”

“It’s one single item that can truly help us decrease the number of injuries and fatalities annually.” Allan W. Purdue, International Association of Fire Chiefs.

Chesterfield County, Virginia, Fire Marshal James Dawson disagrees. Dawson, who is chairman of the Virginia Residential Sprinkler Coalition — a group of state code enforcement, fire prevention, and plumbing manufacturers that supports residential sprinklers — counters that that sprinklers “are designed to keep the fire from spreading,” giving people critical time to escape, especially in recently built homes which have construction materials that tend to burn faster than those in older homes. Dawson cited a National Institute of Standards and Technology study, last revised in 2008, that found the amount of time people have to escape from a burning home after they hear a smoke detector alarm has shrunk from 17 minutes in the 1970s to about three minutes.

Orlowski argued that when it comes to safety, “nothing can get you to 100 percent.” In regard to adding sprinkler systems on top of smoke alarms, said Toalson of the Virgina homebuilders’ group, “The statistics just don’t bear out the need for it.” He noted that homes could be required to provide absolute protection from hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and all sorts of disasters that takes lives. “We could do it, but, unfortunately, nobody could afford that home.”

Perdue, the fire chiefs association board member, countered that the value of individual lives should not get lost in statistics. ”Because we lose lives in ones, twos, and threes, it’s not as big an impact as when an airliner goes down,” he said. Noting the 50 percent decline in deaths since the advent of smoke alarms in the 1970s, he said, “We’ve seen it reach a plateau. We’re looking at what we can do to get that number even lower.”

In Loudoun County, Virginia, Fire Marshal Keith Bower cited a fire on May 25, 2008, in which seven firefighters were injured, one with severe burns, as a case in which a sprinkler system would have brought the blaze under control more quickly and avoided injuries.

The fight turns to Richmond

In Virginia, the Board of Housing and Community Development can implement new rules without approval of the state legislature; lawmakers can, however, create laws that overrule the board. So the loser at the board meeting on Monday could seek a reversal by the General Assembly later this year.

“Unfortunately, I think that’s where it’s going to wind up one way or another,” said Chesterfield County Fire Marshal Dawson.

If the issue ultimately goes to the legislature, Virginia firefighters may find themselves at a disadvantage. The real estate and construction industry has contributed $68 million — about $1.4 million from the Virginia home builders — to state lawmakers and those running for statewide office dating back to 1996, the earliest year for which records were compiled by the Virginia Public Access Project, which tracks Virginia campaign contributions. That compares with less than $2 million from firefighters. So far in 2009, real estate and construction political contributions total $4.6 million — $64,248 from the home builders’ association — compared with $215,862 from firefighters.

Winning endorsement of the sprinkler standard from the International Code Council was significant even if the fight continues, said Shapiro of the international sprinkler coalition, because previously, fire safety officials had to persuade local or state authorities to exceed national standards to mandate sprinkler systems. The code council endorsement essentially makes the sprinkler requirement the new default standard for residential construction, he claims.

“It essentially changed the burden of proof,” he said, adding that home builders will have to show why they think the national standard is wrong.

Whether state and local governments adopt the change or not, Shapiro said he believed the courts would reward plaintiffs bringing civil suits against builders not in compliance with the ICC national standard for any home built after January 1, 2011, the date the change takes effect nationally.

CORRECTION: The original version of this story misstated the membership and voting requirements of the International Code Council, an organization that promulgates “model” codes for construction and fire safety. The International Code Council now has approximately 50,000 members; however, only about 28,000 of them are eligible to vote on such code changes.

Help support this work

Public Integrity doesn’t have paywalls and doesn’t accept advertising so that our investigative reporting can have the widest possible impact on addressing inequality in the U.S. Our work is possible thanks to support from people like you.