Sprinklers Create Flood Of Debate

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When Payson voters cast their ballots in the March 12 primary election, one of the more complicated issues they'll face is a ballot referendum regarding fire sprinkler requirements.

The issue, identified on the ballot as Proposition 301, is further complicated by ballot wording that has opponents many of whom are realtors upset.

At issue is the fact that the proposition as it will appear on the ballot does not specifically mention that existing homes that are increased by 40 percent to a size greater than 3,000 square feet would have to be sprinklered. Instead, the wording refers to "certain existing buildings expanding over 40 percent in size."

Payson Fire Chief John Ross says he did the best he could with the ballot language, but was limited to 50 words or less.

The item was placed on the ballot as the result of a petition circulated by a group of Realtors and other business leaders. They believe the code changes, which also require automatic sprinklers for all new buildings of 3,000 square feet or larger, will add unreasonable costs to both new construction and renovation projects.

A similar requirement on new homes of 3,000 square feet or more has been in effect since 1998 and is not at issue on the ballot.

Opponents of the proposition are also concerned that comments were not solicited for or against the measure for inclusion on the sample ballot.

Instead, that portion of the sample ballot is marked "no response."

In a position statement drafted by Gary Spragins, a member of the town's Building Advisory board and the group opposing the proposition, the local architect says no one from that group was notified or invited to provide a position statement.

"There is no mention on the ballot regarding the fact that the petition was submitted in protest of placing fire sprinklers in existing private single-family residences," Spragins wrote. "There is no way that a voter can know that private single-family residences are the 'existing buildings expanding over 40 percent in size.' They appear to be commercial buildings."

In his position paper, Spragins makes the following points about the efficacy of sprinkler systems:

The life cycle of a sprinkler system is less than the structure, which means that by the time the residence deteriorates to significant fire risk, the system is no longer operative or effective, or new technology has made the system obsolete.

The occurrence of inadvertent discharge of sprinkler heads is very high in residences, causing damage to valuable contents. In many cases, water and/or chemical damage is so significant that the structure must be replaced as if it were destroyed by fire.

Maintenance and periodic testing of sprinkler systems is expensive. The technology is complex and beyond the capabilities of the average homeowner.

The initial cost of these systems and their ongoing maintenance have significant impact on housing costs.

Technically reliable alarm systems for heat and smoke, which can be connected to and monitored by central stations, represent important safeguards, perhaps superior to sprinkler systems.

Well-located fire stations having the capability for medical treatment as well as fire protection, with adequate response time, can represent a more effective approach to life safety.

Wednesday, Ross issued a rebuttal position statement in favor of fire sprinklers. Among his points:

Fire sprinkler systems have been installed for over 100 years and there are systems currently protecting properties that are over 100 years old.

Structural damage from fire will always cost more to repair than water damage from sprinklers. Insurance companies state sprinkler system malfunctions are rare. United States Fire Administation statistics show that fire sprinkler systems have a 1 in 16-million chance of having a manufacturer's defect that will cause them to discharge accidentally.

Many major insurance companies offer rate reductions for sprinkler-protected homes. Their data does not comport with allegations that sprinkler systems cause significant damage.

Generally, the maintenance cost for five to 20 years is zero for sprinkler systems located in freeze zones. The maintenance requirement for such systems is to simply open a valve once a year to ensure water availability and flow.

New technology has made fire sprinkler systems more affordable than ever, and residential fire sprinkler systems are being installed at a higher rate every year.

Larger (3,000 square feet or more) commercial and residential structures protected with automatic fire sprinkler systems impose a significantly (reduced) demand on community fire suppression resources ... If fire sprinklers are installed, then additional, more costly fire apparatus may not be needed.

The National Fire Protection Association reports there has never been a multiple fire death from a fire in a building protected by a complete automatic fire sprinkler system.

The two sides offer widely different cost projections should the town continue to require homes of over 3,000 square feet to have sprinkler systems. Spragins estimates a cost of $8,000 to design and install a sprinkler system, while Ross claims the cost is $1.25 per square foot or $4,500 per residence.

Spragins projects 100 such homes being built per year for a total cost of $8 million for 10 years. Ross projects 50 homes per year at a 10-year cost of $2.25 million.

While voters sift through the conflicting statements of both sides, Ross says the discrepancies probably won't matter in the end.

"Those changes (that voters are being asked to approve in Proposition 301) are amendments to the 1997 fire code, and we are now working on the 2000 International Fire Code," he said. "They are updated about every three years, and everything will be back on the table again."

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