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Town debates cost vs. safety on proposed home sprinkler regulation

Vic Bradshaw
Frederick News Post

The town that's been a recent battleground. over the quantity of new homes soon could be the front line over a safety feature in those homes.

Responding to lobbying by members of the Vigilant Hose Co. and the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), Mayor Jim Hoover has asked the board of commissioners to consider requiring sprinkler systems in all single-family homes built in the town. No legislation is imminent, but the commissioners are slated to discuss the issue at their Jan. 5 meeting.

Emmitsburg wouldn't be the first local jurisdiction to mandate sprinklers in all new homes. Mount Airy took the step more than a year ago, and Montgomery County recently made sprinklers a requirement. The county regulation goes into effect on Jan. 14.

Proponents of residential sprinklers point to studies showing that they save lives and property in most types of fires. Critics, however, contend that they increase home prices in an area where finding affordable housing can be problematic, adding a cost that many homebuyers reject.

The issue arose when Ted Brennan, a former board member, started sprinkler discussions with the town's planning commission. They continued briefly after Mr. Brennan lost a re-election bid, but rezoning and annexation requests soon took priority.

Most of those requests are settled, so Mr. Hoover is reviving the issue with the board. A few members have said that, based on information provided to the mayor by sprinkler advocates, they currently favor a sprinkler requirement, but they've only been exposed to one side.

"I don't know what this board will do," the mayor said.

No person or entity affiliated with the town has taken a definite stance on sprinklers.

Ed Henry, chairman of the town's planning commission, has been in the construction industry for decades and thinks sprinklers are "a positive thing." He said the planning commission had asked for more data on the issue but didn't receive it before land-use matters took center stage.

Because the USFA is just outside Emmitsburg, local advocates of a sprinkler mandate won't be hard to find.

In a September 2001 study by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), researchers admitted that few fires have occurred in homes with sprinklers. However, based on the data available, the report estimated that death rates would drop by 74 percent if sprinklers were mandatory.

The report also cited a National Institute of Standards and Technology study that estimated that the death rate would drop by 63 percent in homes that have smoke detectors and 69 percent in homes without smoke detectors if sprinklers were added to one- and two-family dwellings.

Mr. Powell said residential sprinkler systems have positive financial benefits for homeowners, reducing insurance costs and increasing the value of the home. Some areas provide temporary tax credits for homes with systems, he said, and requiring the systems in new homes could help the Vigilant Hose Company's response area remain exempt from Frederick County's fire tax.

But the value of those benefits is difficult to determine. Sprinkler proponents said they pay for themselves over time, while opponents argue that they don't.

The NFPA study said that sprinklers add an average of 1 to 2 percent to the cost of a new home. That means a $200,000 house would cost an extra $2,000 to $4,000 if it were built with a sprinkler system.

Retrofitting an existing home with sprinklers costs about twice as much, Mr. Powell said.

The Insurance Service Office, which collects and analyzes property and liability data for the industry, recommends a credit of between 8 and 13 percent on the fire-protection portion of insurance premiums for sprinkled homes. Coverage varies greatly and prices differ regionally, so placing a dollar amount on such a credit is almost impossible.

Several calls to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) over several days were not returned. But Bryan Patchan, a former NAHB staffer who's now the executive officer of the Frederick County Builders Association (FCBA), said the national organization historically has opposed such mandates because the cost exceeds the benefit.

"Certainly no one wants to put a price tag on such tragedies. But we can't make the world a perfectly safe place in any regard," Mr. Patchan said.

While Emmitsburg may debate requiring sprinklers, Frederick County isn't considering such action. John Gibson, the county's director of permits and inspections, said it's hard for homes on well systems to provide the volume and pressure necessary for effective sprinkler use.

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