If technical justification and intelligence prevail this fall, history will be made and sprinklers will be mandated.

Everyone is gearing up for the ICC Final Code Hearings scheduled for the third week of September in Minneapolis, MN. The spin for various code changes has already started.

Not surprisingly, the hottest issue is residential sprinklers. Should the International Residential Code (IRC) mandate sprinkler protection for all one- and two -family dwellings and townhouses?

As I travel across the country, one of the questions I am always asked is, “Who would be opposed to mandating residential sprinklers? It really makes sense to require them.”

My answer is, that I am only aware of one national organization that is adamantly opposed to mandating residential sprinklers, that being the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). While they may be a lone voice, they are a very strong voice. Furthermore, they are well respected when it comes to developing the IRC. Rightly so, their efforts often help gain approval of new technology.

NAHB also has a very formidable spin machine. They have been at it a long time, plus they have a well-respected staff that is very good at dealing in the code business.

The NAHB spin machine is working overtime, distributing published papers of why sprinklers should never be mandated. They even produced a video regarding sprinklers. I might add that the video is of very high quality, with interesting information.

With all of these professional presentations on the subject matter, it is unfortunate that NAHB is wrong. They are wrong for the very reasons they use to say they are right.

Tug O' War

It is interesting that NAHB begins their argument against sprinklers by stating that the other side, meaning those that support mandating sprinklers, are only using emotions to convince everyone to vote for sprinklers. In fact, it is NAHB that is yanking on the emotional strings of the voters at the ICC Hearings.

NAHB’s emotional plea is that if you mandate sprinklers, thousands of people will no longer be able to afford a new home. Then they try to justify this premise with skewed economics.

The craziness of their numbers is that they can only cry affordability in the context of very low-end homes. These types of homes are few in number, compared to the more common home that far exceeds code minimums and quickly approaches the McMansion size.

Many of these affordable homes are constructed by Habitat for Humanity and many Habitat homes are sprinklered. There goes the argument that you cannot economically sprinkler a starter home. It is done every day.

The next thing NAHB does is manipulates the statistics regarding fire deaths in the United States. This I find comical - and tragic.

They correctly point out that, since the advent of smoke detectors, fire deaths in one- and two-family dwellings have been cut in half. This is true, and it is great that this has occurred. But what that also means is that the fire death rate has dropped from 6,000 per year to 3,000 per year.

To say that 3,000 fire deaths a year is an acceptable number, in order to offer affordable housing, is reprehensible. In any other profession, this loss of life would be considered completely unacceptable.

Imagine if we had terrorist attacks every year that left 3,000 dead. There would be public outcry. That number closely resembles the tragic loss of life on 9/11. Think of how we responded as a country, and rightly so.

Imagine if we lost 3,000 people a year in plane crashes. There would be a Congressional investigation. We would be after the necks of the airline industry executives.

So why do we give a free pass to the homebuilders? Why do we consider 3,000 fire deaths a year acceptable? Why isn’t there a Congressional investigation that puts the heads of all the major homebuilders before a Congressional committee and grills them, regarding their concern for their own profits, while sacrificing human lives. Okay, I will admit that is overboard. But isn’t that the way our Congress acts on issues like this?

No Technical Justification?!?

NAHB continues, stating that there is no technical justification for mandating sprinklers. Forget the fact that the statistics clearly show that residential sprinklers save lives. They claim that the pool of statistics is too small since very few jurisdictions mandate sprinklers. Although they cannot deny that, between 2002 and 2006, there were zero fire deaths in homes protected with NFPA 13D sprinkler systems.

Part of NAHB’s plan is to continue to improve on the life safety of homes. Make smoke detectors more efficient. Have educational programs so that everyone understands the need to maintain smoke detectors. They estimate that this could further reduce the loss of life in fires.

But, even with these proposed concepts, the number still remains 875 deaths a year. In my book, that is still not acceptable. How can anyone consider it acceptable when the solution is relatively inexpensive using NFPA 13D?

To further give an appearance at being technical, NAHB lists their concerns that have not been addressed by those supporting the mandate of residential sprinklers. Of course, every concern they list has been answered; it is simply that NAHB doesn’t always like the answers.

It wasn’t long ago that you could build any residential building without sprinklers. Little by little, those supporting sprinklers have chipped away at the code - to the point where every other residential building must now be sprinklered. This is a mandatory requirement in the International Building Code.

Can you imagine moving into a new high-rise building today that is not sprinklered? Do you really want to stay in a hotel or motel that is not sprinklered? Isn’t it important to protect our college students by sprinklering every dormitory and fraternity or sorority house?

Which brings us back to affordability. How can NAHB play the affordability card, when lower-cost new housing (apartments, co-ops, and condominiums) are protected with sprinklers? Do you remember when certain groups played the affordability card for these structures? But what happened? They are still affordable.

If technical justification and intelligence prevails at the ICC Code Hearings, history will be made and sprinklers will be mandated. If NAHB’s hysterical emotion wins out, the public will suffer. Let’s hope that the voting members of the ICC make the right decision and vote to mandate residential sprinklers.

We may not benefit from the sprinkler mandate, but our grandchildren will thank us.