The International Code Council (ICC) code change hearings in Rochester, NY, were abuzz over one change: Mandating residential sprinklers in all one- and two-family dwellings, including townhouses. When the proposed code change to the International Residential Code (IRC) was called to the floor, the hearing room was packed. Everyone was sitting on the edge of his chair waiting to hear the testimony and observe the vote.

This was the first year that the ICC used electronic voting. All voting members were presented with a handheld device for voting. Any counting would be very accurate and quick.

The proposed change to mandate residential sprinklers in the IRC was recommended for denial by the IRC Code Change Committee. That vote took place in Orlando last September. Of course, the vote was not surprising, given the dominance of homebuilders’ influence on the committee.

Because of the recommendation for denial, the first group of speakers was against mandating residential sprinklers. Everyone knew it was going to be a good fight when a long line of speakers descended on the podium. It looked like a wave of locusts on the attack.

Taking Sides

Each person was given two minutes to speak. However, the moderator of the sessions prohibited any duplicate testimony. The theme of the opposition was established rather quickly: “We are in favor of choice and against mandating sprinklers.”

The choice referred to is the new appendix in the 2006 IRC, which provides a means for a jurisdiction to adopt mandatory sprinkler requirements. The opposition wanted states and local jurisdictions to make the decision. Of course, these statements are totally contrary to the purpose of the ICC, which is to develop a set of code requirements to be adopted by jurisdiction without the need for any amendments.

The homebuilders always supported this concept. Yet here they were, speaking against one of their fundamental beliefs in supporting the development of the ICC.

When listening to the long list of speakers, it was also obvious that the opposition’s intent was to bore the voting members. Get them uninterested and they will vote to deny the change.

One after another, there were statements from homebuilders, building officials, local elected officials and even one volunteer fireman, who later admitted that he was a homebuilder. The building official opposition seemed to be centered in the Southwest, with a few from the mountain states opposed.

A letter was presented from Michigan Habitat For Humanity that opposed residential sprinklers. That letter would later backfire.

For those waiting for a technical argument against mandating sprinklers, it never came. After a while, one would’ve thought they were at a different type of rally, with all of the discussion regarding “choice.”

When those supporting mandatory residential sprinklers finally had their opportunity to speak, another long line formed at the podium. But rather than stating that they supported life safety, the group presented technical arguments supporting mandatory residential sprinklers. One after another, speakers spoke of the success, the need for life safety, the ease of installation, the low cost, the awful loss of life each year from residential fires and the misstatements by the builders and building officials. With 3,000 residential fire deaths a year, it was time to mandate sprinklers.

In a rebuttal to the Michigan Habitat For Humanity letter, the chief of the Rochester Fire Department testified about the death of three people in a new Habitat For Humanity home. The Austin, TX, Habitat For Humanity submitted a letter that supported mandatory sprinklers, indicating that all of their recent homes have been sprinklered.

The quality of the testimony was as different as the position the two sides were taking.

Round Two
After the first round of testimony, there was a second round of rebuttal testimony. Those against continued to bore the masses. Their comments were rebutted with technical testimony.

When it was finally time to vote, the initial hand count was inconclusive. The electronic voting clearly indicated that the motion to deny the change failed. A new motion was made to approve the code change with modifications.

The only problem with the second motion is that it would require a two-thirds vote to pass. When a change does not receive the blessing of the code change committee, a super majority is required by the ICC process.

The vote was 476 in favor of mandatory sprinklers, 375 against the motion. The motion failed to obtain the required two-thirds majority by 92 votes. With 851 votes cast, it was one of the largest vote totals ever recorded by the ICC.

The homebuilders tried to spin the vote as a major victory, indicating that the masses don’t want mandatory residential sprinklers. However, everyone in attendance saw a different outcome. For the first time ever, mandatory residential sprinklers received a majority of the votes. This was a clear indication that residential sprinklers will be mandated in the near future.

The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) even extended a hand to work together to address residential sprinklers. With such a public statement, it will be hard for NAHB to back away from dealing with those in support of mandatory residential sprinklers.

The same subject will be on the agenda for next year’s code change cycle to the IRC. There will probably be some tweaking to the proposal for the next cycle. The code changes are due on Aug. 20, 2007. The ICC always has a quick turnaround.

Those in support of mandating residential sprinklers left the hearing energized. Many plan to do as the opposition stated, go to their local jurisdiction and mandate the appendix requirements right now. The homebuilders may have opened the wrong can of worms in the long run.

Those in favor of residential sprinklers also plan on returning next year, with even more votes in support. The next hearing is scheduled for Palm Springs, CA, in Feb. 2008.

Next month, I’ll review the changes to the Plumbing and Mechanical Codes.