Flip Flopping Fire Sprinkler Rule Could Surface Again

November 3, 2009

Although a state law this summer invalidated West University Place’s mandate that new homes include fire sprinklers, plans may materialize to challenge the Texas law after national supporters of the fire-sprinkler requirement won a battle last week.

“We’re not done with this in Texas,” said Jeff Shapiro, executive director of the International Residential Code Fire Sprinklers Coalition. “In the next legislative session, there are a lot of parties interested in revisiting this issue.”

Shapiro said he hopes West U. may be one of the local governments interested in challenging the state law, which deals with the regulation of plumbers but includes an amendment authored by State Rep. John Otto that prohibits cities from requiring fire sprinklers in new home construction.

The back-and-forth controversy stems from an addition to the 2009 update to the International Residential Code, which is widely adopted as a baseline for building codes by local governments, including West U. Last year the nonprofit International Code Council, which publishes the IRC, proposed a requirement that all new homes must have sprinklers.

Since then, the National Association of Home Builders has fought to remove the requirement.

“NAHB believes that making sure every home has working smoke alarms should be our safety priority, not mandating expensive sprinkler systems for consumers who overwhelmingly don’t want them,” according to a statement by Joe Robson, chairman of the National Association of Home Builders.

On Oct. 28 the issue reached the International Code Council’s annual meeting in Baltimore, where members of the Residential Building Code Committee voted 7-to-4 to keep the fire sprinkler requirement. There must be one more vote before the requirement is permanent.

Even if the IRC fire-sprinkler requirement passes, it doesn’t force cities and counties to accept the rule. Local governments use the code as a baseline guide.

“They have the right to change the code as they see fit,” said spokesman Steve Daggers. “They could knock out anything they wanted.”

But in Texas, it’s a moot point for a city or county to “knock out” the fire sprinkler requirement. The new state law already does it.

Home builders groups lobbied Texas legislators for the law, Shapiro said, and the groups were successful at getting similar laws passed in North Dakota and Idaho.

It remains to be seen whether other groups in Texas will challenge the state law. But West U. officials do have strong feelings on the issue — Many fought the state vehemently before the law passed by speaking out to state officials, sending letters and writing newspaper editorials.

“It just makes me think that Texas is behind the times as far as fire safety goes,” Ralls said about the law. “And they (Texas legislators) need to leave that up to the local option and let local government decide what type of fire protection they need in their jurisdictions.”

Ralls said sprinklers would help his department overcome challenges of fighting fires in the city.

“We have a small fire department and lots of large houses built real close together,” Ralls said. “Anything we can do to help us suppress fires is going to help us save lives, civilian and fire fighter.”

InstantNewsWestu Staff

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