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Sprinkler System Grandfathering Laws – the Debate Continues

March 31, 2014

IMG_4165A recent deadly fire at a motel in Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey, has once again brought up the debate about whether sprinkler system grandfathering laws should exist for certain types of occupants. This most recent fire, at the Mariner’s Cove Motor Inn, killed four people and injured seven more. Another tragic fire in Boston this last week took the lives of two firefighters who were trying to clear out a basement in a brownstone where a fire had started (although it is currently unknown whether this building has been grandfathered in to sprinkler law, or if one was just not installed).

Other cities have been discussing the need for installing sprinkler systems in existing buildings. In Chicago, debates have gone on for at least the past two years, arguing whether high-rise condominium complexes should be retroactively fitted with life safety sprinkler systems. The Chicago debates could also potentially require systems be installed in all buildings occupied by 50 or more people (including churches, restaurants, etc.). These laws are being hotly contested, and motions are even being put forth to limit the authority of the city’s fire chief, arguing that he’s bypassing the legislative process.

Proponents of these laws argue that sprinkler systems are necessary for saving lives. And when the numbers are examined, it does prove to be the case. A recent arson fire in a Washington State nightclub was quickly extinguished by a sprinkler system that was retroactively fitted to the building based on mandates set forth by the state in 2007; 750 lives were saved because of this change in the law. The Rhode Island Nightclub Fire in 2003 possibly could’ve been prevented had Rhode Island not grandfathered in nightclubs, allowing them to not install sprinkler systems.

Detractors argue that the cost of installing these systems and the cost of water damage cleanup after a fire outweighs the potential benefit. In Chicago alone over 700 buildings would have to be retrofitted to comply with proposed new sprinkler legislation at a potential cost of $30 million in one building alone. There is no arguing that the cost of installing these systems can be high, but the number of lives saved should also be a consideration.

Water damage cleanup may also not be quite the issue many people believe it to be. This study by the Scottsdale Report shows that home fire sprinklers use approximately 341 gallons of water to control a fire whereas a firefighter response would use an average of 2,935. Insurance policies also consider fire as a covered cause of loss, as well as the ensuing damage from the fire. Because of this, the water from the automatic sprinkler system (this is sometimes included under concurrent causation, which we will focus on in a future blog, but in standard fire policies should be covered under fire-related water damage) should be covered—contact your agent if you have questions!

The deaths in the New Jersey motel fire were caused by smoke inhalation and not the direct flames of the fire, which could be another argument against the need for fire sprinklers. However, automatic fire sprinkler systems do tamp down the smoke and slow the spread of heat, thus giving occupants more time to exit the building.

WSRB is a property rating bureau and because of that we focus our sprinkler system field inspections on property safety (NFPA 13 compliant) systems. However, sprinkler systems designed to save property are very effective at saving lives. We encourage the installation of sprinkler systems in all commercial and residential properties because sprinklers are so good at what they are designed to do: automatically extinguish fires.NFPA 13R (residential) systems are specifically designed for residential use and to give building occupants 10 to 15 minutes to exit a building once a fire has begun.

For more information on home fire sprinkler systems, please visit FireSprinklerInitiative.org for dwelling sprinkler systems and the National Fire Sprinkler Association (NFSA) or National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) for additional information and answers to your questions.

Article by Kristen Skinner

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