Should sprinklers be required in all new homes?

By Melissa Correa - bio | email

CHESTERFIELD, VA (WWBT) – It's an explosive debate. Should the state regulate which safety precautions you take in your own home?

Right now, the State Board for Housing and Community Development is deciding whether to adopt a national fire code which requires sprinklers to be installed in all new houses and town homes.

It's a debate that pits home builders against fire departments. And it boils down to cost.

Smoke alarms run just a few dollars. Sprinkler systems though are in the thousands. And in a down economy, contractors worry people just won't be willing to pay for the added safety firefighters say sprinklers offer.

One after another. Some have proved fatal, others destroyed homes. Firefighters in Richmond, Chesterfield and Henrico just can't catch a break.

Even in wet conditions house fires top headlines about once a week.

"In Henrico County, just this past quarter, they've had seven fire deaths, five of them occurred with working smoke detectors. So smoke detectors aren't the end all," said Robbie Dawson, Fire Marshal  for Chesterfield Fire Department.

Dawson is at the forefront of a major controversy. He's advocating for fire sprinklers in all new homes and town homes. The regulation is already a national fire code. Now it's up to Virginia's Board of Housing and Community Development to decide if it should be adopted by the Commonwealth.

"They've been in apartments since the early 90's and we've seen how effective they are," Dawson said.

There was an experiment in Mooresville, North Carolina. The exact same fire sparks in each room -- within seconds smoke cloaks both areas.

"Sprinklers are activated by heat and only one sprinkler head at a time will go off," Dawson said.

Once the room reached a specific temperature a sprinkler is set off. In less than a few minutes the fire is put out -- well before firefighters arrive.

"It's a tenth of the fire damage in a sprinkler home versus a non-sprinkler home," he said.

"The national average is a $1.61 per square foot," Dawson said of the cost to install sprinklers in a new home.

That's just too much money according to Warren Wakeland.

"In this economy -- where trying to buy a home is about as hard of a thing to do -- we have to keep costs down as much as we can," he said.

He and his team of contractors argue smoke detectors do just as good of a job.  The fatalities that we've seen in Central Virginia are an anomaly.

"Hard-wired connected smoke alarm system in your home is going to cost about $500 a sprinkler system is going to cost 10 times that or more," he said.

Wakeland says the cost is less when installing sprinklers in multiple units -- like apartments. It also keeps fires from spreading unit to unit. He and the Homebuilding Association of Richmond are instead asking for fire extinguishers in kitchens.

"That just will not work to protect people," said Maria Figueroa, a firefighter for more than 20 years.

She now chooses to live in a home with sprinklers. She says children and the elderly will have a tough time working an extinguisher. In order for everyone to make it out alive, sprinklers are the best bet.

"Your insurance will not go up, on the contrary you will get discounts on the fire portion of your insurance bill if you have fire sprinklers in your home," she said.

"We know we're fighting an up-hill battle," Dawson said.

A battle homebuilders are willing to fight until the idea of sprinklers in new homes is shot down.

"Smoke alarms save just as many lives as sprinklers," Wakeland said.

Firefighters want to come to a compromise. Start with sprinklers in new town homes.

But contractors aren't budging. It's the addition of fire extinguishers or nothing at all. The final decision is expected in July.

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