By Jim Crawford
Published Monday, June 18, 2012
| From the August 2012 Issue of FireRescue
The fire and life safety community is well aware of the benefits of residential fire sprinklers. What’s painfully clear is that the general public doesn’t share our level of concern. The public policy debate has been taking place across the nation since the model codes (first NFPA and then the International Code Council (ICC)) required fire sprinklers in new construction for one and two-family dwellings. The real impetus for this debate stems from the adoption of those requirements in the body of the International Residential Code (IRC). You’d have to be hiding under a rock to avoid noticing that the homebuilder community has been actively, and successfully, opposing this requirement ever since—with two notable exceptions.
California adopted the IRC with the requirement for residential sprinklers intact. I’ve previously written about how California has long addressed the issues in a collaborative fashion, removing barriers all along the way so that when State Fire Marshal Tonya Hoover and her partners in the state moved for adoption, it was approved.
Lesser known efforts have been under way in Maryland, which uses a more “bottom up” approach to mandating residential fire sprinklers. I recently had a chat with State Fire Marshal Bill Barnard, who explained their approach.
Maryland has been requiring sprinklers, community by community, for several years; in fact, it has had a statewide sprinkler requirement for all townhomes constructed since 1992. In 2005, the Maryland State Firemen’s Association, in partnership with the State Fire Marshal’s Office, appointed a residential fire sprinkler committee. The committee promotes the requirement for residential fire sprinklers through an extensive educational effort directed at local fire services and elected officials.
If all politics are local, the committee has demonstrated that building up local support for sprinkler inclusion has long-term payoffs. What many outside Maryland haven’t noticed, though, is that the battle for statewide mandates has been waged for years. After the sprinkler requirement passed in the ICC code development system in 2008, the requirements were adopted by the Maryland Building Performance Standards in 2009—with compliance required by 2011. But that wasn’t the end of the story.
In July of 2010, an attorney general’s opinion allowed local governments to opt out of the model codes—including fire sprinklers. Additionally, Maryland has a Model Performance Code for modular homes that has required sprinklers since 2011, but that requirement was challenged during the 2011 legislative session. Although the challenge was defeated, it was clear to the fire service that this issue was not going to go away. Instead, each year the opponents of fire sprinklers were going to lobby for an “opt out” clause or the potential for an outright exclusion of sprinklers in the code adoption process. It would take a sustained effort by a group of fire service partners to overcome this challenge.
The Maryland Fire Service Legislative Working group is made up of fire service leadership from career and volunteer fire departments and statewide associations, including the Maryland State Firemen’s Association and the Maryland Fire Chiefs Association. Together with the State Fire Marshal’s Office, this group works tirelessly to educate elected officials about the value of fire sprinklers while successfully fending off bills that would gut the requirements in the code.
In part, Barnard attributes the success of this effort to the group’s hard work and diligence; he also attributes it to years of work done locally to remove barriers and demonstrate how sprinklers can be required without ruining the home building economy, as some continue to suggest.
To be sure, the debate is probably not over. Barnard said he’d continue working with the Maryland Codes Administration to ensure the requirements will be appropriately implemented. And while there are a few limited exceptions to the IRC fire sprinkler requirements, most of them will expire Jan. 1, 2016.
On May 2, 2012, Governor Martin O’Malley signed historic legislation prohibiting local jurisdictions from “opting out” of fire sprinkler requirements. This is one of the few success stories we have nationally as our collective efforts to require fire sprinklers continue. And the lessons learned help us understand how to organize and collectively influence this public policy debate.
In my opinion, the battle won’t be won just by showing up at the last minute to testify—even if in uniform. And public policy won’t be influenced by threats of disaster—though each one is critical. Public policy is determined less for an individual and more for a collective benefit. So the old adage that one life lost is too many, though correct, isn’t enough to affect the outcome. We must develop more effective arguments and evidence to present alongside the stories of personal loss.
Anyone interested in learning more about Maryland’s law and the experience sprinkler proponents have developed relative to this issue can contact State Fire Marshal Bill Barnard at email@example.com. He has been a passionate supporter of fire prevention efforts both locally and nationally, and he’s the type of person who works hard to help others achieve success as well.
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