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Safety versus savings

Published (3/4/2011)
By Kris Berggren
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Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Where there’s fire, there should be water, safety advocates say, specifically fire sprinklers that could quell a house fire before it becomes deadly.

If a fire starts in your home, you could have as little as three minutes to escape before you’d be overcome by fumes or flames, according to State Fire Marshal Jerry Rosendahl.

That’s down from about 17 minutes in 1975, in part because newer home construction materials are more combustible and highly toxic, Rosendahl told the House Commerce and Regulatory Reform Committee March 1.

Smoke detectors, including the hard-wired, interconnected battery-backup kind required since 2003 in new residential construction, are a good tool to save lives, he said, but sprinklers are better.

However, the price of sprinklers could be a burden on struggling homeowners and home builders alike. That’s why Rep. Joyce Peppin (R-Rogers) sponsors HF460, which would prohibit requiring fire sprinklers in new or existing single-family homes.

“The cost of making this sprinkler mandatory in new dwellings didn’t line up very well with the additional safety benefits,” she said. A sprinkler requirement is among code modifications to be considered in a rulemaking review by the departments of Labor and Industry and Public Safety scheduled to start in April.

“Why not at least allow the discussion instead of putting a ban on the discussion, and see what it yields?” said Rep. Joe Atkins (DFL-Inver Grove Heights).

The committee approved the bill and sent it to the House floor. Sen. Warren Limmer (R-Maple Grove) sponsors a companion, SF297, which awaits action by the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee.

Safety versus affordability

Fire chiefs may focus on the safety issues, but average Minnesotans want to know whether their paycheck will go up in smoke if they must install sprinklers.

The cost depends on whether the home is on city water, how far it is from the fire lane and its size. Estimates range from an average $1.61 per square foot, according to the National Fire Protection Association, to up to $6 per square foot, according to Karen Linner, director of codes and research for the Builders Association of Minnesota. One builder spent $16,000 on his home sprinklers, because it was too far from a fire lane and required two water tanks and a commercial pump.

Affordable housing advocates said Minnesota families on the financial margins can’t afford any.

“This is the seventh straight year where the number of people paying more than half of their income for housing has increased,” said Chip Halbach, executive director of the Minnesota Housing Partnership. “We feel it’s not the time to impose a sprinkler requirement on single family homes.”

The 50,000 families who live in manufactured homes would be hard pressed to add sprinklers at an additional cost of $4,000 to the cost of a 1,200-square-foot home and $7,000 to the cost of a 3,000-square-foot home, said Mark Brunner, president of the Minnesota Manufactured Modular Housing Association.

BAM President Todd Bjerstedt supports fire prevention efforts, but said sprinklers don’t significantly increase safety. According to the NFPA, there’s a 99.45 percent chance of surviving a fire if at least one working smoke detector is installed and a 99.85 percent chance if a sprinkler is installed.

Not all fires included in those figures are equal, said Russ Sanders, the NFPA’s central regional director. Most of last year’s 400,000 reported house fires nationwide were easily contained and not life-threatening; it’s the 23 percent that go beyond the room of origin that caused most of the 3,000 deaths of residents or firefighters that occurred in those fires. He estimates sprinklers would have saved 98 percent of the 3,000.

Linner said national fire safety has improved dramatically in the past three decades dropping 58 percent between 1979 and 2003.

“The decreasing number of fire deaths is a public safety success story. The entire housing stock is getting safer and the newest homes are the safest in Minnesota,” she said, adding that older homes have risk factors such as outdated wiring, overloaded electrical circuits and wood burning fireplaces.

Those on both sides agree personal behavior is perhaps the biggest risk factor. Tampering with smoke alarm batteries or improperly using space heaters or extension cords increases risk. Careless smoking is the biggest risk factor, causing 42 percent of fire deaths, said Linner.

Conversely, personal choices can be a positive factor.

“I just want to remind everyone that there’s nothing in this bill that prevents anyone from putting a sprinkler in their home,” Peppin said.

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