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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

State House votes to repeal sprinkler requirement

State House votes to repeal sprinkler requirement

State representatives passed a bill Monday that would repeal state-required sprinkler systems in new homes.
Fire officials said the sprinkler requirement saves lives and money, but builders and Realtors backed the repeal, saying the requirement was too burdensome for an already floundering housing market.
The sprinkler requirement was part of the Uniform Construction Code that went into affect Jan. 1. Firefighters, investigators and fire officials praised its implementation, noting that sprinklers would save lives. However, builders and Realtors lobbied heavily for its repeal, noting that tacking on more costs to home construction would only hamper new home sales.
"It's ridiculous," said Ottsville Fire Chief Thomas Rimmer. "With all the lightweight construction now, a single truss fails and a fireman falls through the floor."
Rimmer said sprinklers can be the difference between putting out a trash-can fire or extinguishing a fully engulfed home.
"I guess money means more than lives," Rimmer said.
Last year Lingohocken Fire Chief Greg Jakubowski pointed out two deaths in Hilltown and a third in Tinicum could have been avoided if the homes had been equipped with sprinkler systems. As an example of sprinkler success, he pointed to a December 2009 fire that was contained to the garage after sprinklers were activated by the smoke.
Several local representatives voted for the repeal, including, Paul Clymer (R-145), Robert Godshall (R-53), Kate Harper (R-61), Marguerite Quinn (R-143), Todd Stephens (R-151). Representatives Frank Farry (R-142), Bernie O'Neill (R-29), Katherine M. Watson (R-144), Thomas Murt (R-152), Scott Petri (R-178), John Galloway (D-140), Steve Santarsiero (D-31) and Tina Davis (D-141) all voted against the repeal.
Robert Godshall said he felt the sprinkler requirement was an excessive cost to pass on to first-time homebuyers given current economic troubles. Clymer said construction has always been a key foundation for the economy and given the economic concerns and job losses he felt the sprinkler mandate would hinder an economic revival in Pennsylvania. Costs for the sprinkler systems vary based on the square footage of the home and if public water is accessible, and lobbies for and against the repeal offer different estimates, as low as $1.65 a square foot to $24,000 a home.
In a statement on its site, the Pennsylvania Builders Association celebrated the repeal, stating that the bill strikes a compromise between safety and consumer costs. The bill requires new construction to use fire-resistant flooring and requires hardwired smoke detectors. However, fire officials said fire-resistant flooring can be replaced by homeowners, leaving firefighters entering a building unsure of the conditions they will find.
"We could almost avoid all loss of life in sprinklered buildings," Don Konkle, former Harrisburg fire chief and executive director of the Pennsylvania Fire and Emergency Services Institute. Konkle said with decreases in volunteer manpower, some suburban departments are hiring career firefighters, which will be paid for year after year by local fire taxes. Konkle said that instead of paying for firefighters each year, homeowners could pay the one-time cost of sprinkler installation that would diminish the need for paid firefighters.
He said he also opposed an amendment that would have exempted rural communities, because those homes are farther from fire stations.
With Monday's vote, 154-39, the bill goes before the state Senate.
State Sen. Chuck McIlhinney, R-10, said he opposed the Uniform Construction Code when it was first voted in six years ago.
"I knew that one-size-fits-all was never going to work," McIlhinney said.
McIlhinney said that a sprinkler system is appropriate in some of the more developed parts of the state, but economically prohibitive in some of the more rural regions.
Rep. Frank Farry said he also thinks the answer lies somewhere in the middle. He voted against the repeal.
But he said he understands concerns about the costs in rural areas and the affect of a statewide mandate on construction.
Farry had supported an amendment to Bill 377 that would have empowered municipalities hoping to pass sprinkler requirements at the local level. Previously municipalities that chose to pass local ordinances requiring sprinkler systems were subject to lawsuits where they had to justify enacting a building requirement that added to or superseded state requirements, Farry said.

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