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From the Editor: Sprinkler issue once again rears its head

On Dec. 24, the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs called for mandatory sprinklers in all new residential buildings. The plea to the provincial government for changes to the Ontario Building Code followed a townhouse fire in Toronto in which a mother and two of her four children were killed just three days before Christmas.

January 21, 2008
By Laura King


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On Dec. 24, the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs called for mandatory sprinklers in all new residential buildings. The plea to the provincial government for changes to the Ontario Building Code followed a townhouse fire in Toronto in which a mother and two of her four children were killed just three days before Christmas.

OAFC president Richard Boyes, the fire chief in nearby Oakville, put it bluntly: “People are dying by code,” he said. “People are supposed to feel safe in their homes, yet people are still dying in homes that are built to code. The code doesn’t go far enough.”

The Toronto fire happened days after the North Carolina building code council vetoed a motion to form a committee to prepare a code amendment requiring sprinklers in residential buildings of 3,600 square feet or more. The council, made up of home builders, referred the issue to a different committee for review.

According to news reports from in Wilmington, N.C., three dozen uniformed firefighters, chiefs and marshals from across the state attended the council meeting to support a petition for the code change.

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“We’re extremely disappointed,” Frank Blackley, president of the N.C. Fire Marshals Association, told WECT news. “The residential committee is made up of home builders. We know they’re not going to support sprinklers.”

In North Carolina, the proposed code change is, in part, a response to the fire in Ocean Isle Beach in October that killed seven college-age students. The municipal foot dragging is in stark contrast to the actions of councillors in San Luis Obispo County, Calif., where, as of Jan. 1, builders of new homes and commercial structures larger than 1,000 square feet must install sprinklers (a change from 5,000 square feet). The home builders association there opposed the change, saying it would be expensive, adding between $5,000 and $10,000 to the cost of a new home but the regulation is among the most strict in North America.

Fire Marshal David Douglas of Greensboro, N.C., said sprinklers run about one to two per cent of the cost of a new home, about the same as better-quality carpeting or installing granite kitchen counters.
In Ontario, two private member’s bills on mandatory sprinklers dating to 2004 died after second reading in the legislature.

“If this law was introduced years ago, these deaths might not have happened,” Kitchener, Ont., Fire Chief Tim Beckett told the Kitchener-Waterloo Record after the Toronto fire. Beckett, who is first vice president of the OAFC, noted that Ontario is the only province that doesn't make sprinkler systems mandatory in apartment buildings.

According to the OAFC, the range of cost to install residential sprinklers is between $1.50 and $3 per square foot. And, the association says, savings on property insurance for units with sprinklers can range from 10 per cent to 15 per cent.

In Vancouver, B.C. and Scottsdale, Ariz., all new residential developments must include sprinkler systems. Since the regulations were introduced, there have been no fire deaths in homes with sprinklers and more than 90 per cent of all fires in these homes were contained by the operation of a single sprinkler.

What’s clear from a web search on residential sprinklers is that the arguments for them – safety, security, lower insurance costs – clearly outweigh the builders’ arguments of higher costs but the builders’ lobby appears to be stronger.

Similar to campaigns for seatbelts, healthy eating, no smoking and smoke detectors in homes, this issue requires a sea change in attitude. Perseverance pays. Put your public education divisions to work and make this a priority.


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