Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on October 30, 2014.

PERHAPS NO STATE HAS A STRONGER HISTORY of home fire sprinkler use than California. In 1979, the city of San Clemente became the first community in the nation to require sprinklers in residential homes, and in January 2011, California became the first U.S. state to mandate the installation of sprinklers in all new one- and two-family dwellings. (Maryland followed with a similar sprinkler requirement in 2012.) In its requirement, California called for home fire sprinklers to be installed using NFPA 13D, Installation of Sprinkler Systems in One- and Two-Family Dwellings and Manufactured Homes.

If California is the home fire sprinkler capitol, then State Fire Marshal Tonya Hoover is its leader. Hoover, who has held the fire marshal post since 2009, led the effort to adopt the statewide home fire sprinkler mandate. Her office’s statewide adoption campaign was so comprehensive and so thorough that the State Buildings Standards Commission approved the sprinkler mandate unanimously. NFPA Journal spoke with Hoover about the home fire sprinkler mandate
in California, how it works, how it came to be, and what lessons the state has learned in the nearly four years since its adoption.

How did the code-adoption process work in California?

Each state agency with a responsibility for code development—and in this case the office of the state fire marshal has responsibility for fire safety codes—takes model codes and modifies those for California’s needs. Those modified national codes and standards then get brought forward to the California Buildings Standards Commission, and the commission votes to accept the package and move it forward. So it’s not a legislative process; the commission oversees the adoption of the California codes.

How did your office go about gaining support for the adoption of a home fire sprinkler mandate?

We said over and over that the whole intent of the adoption of the code was life safety. It had nothing to do with property protection; this was a life-safety initiative wholeheartedly.

We did a whole lot of legwork before we even got to the code adoption process. We created three task-force groups and brought together many folks and key players. Our California Building Industry Association was at the table; we had water purveyors at the table; we had builders, we had fire protection engineers, we had building officials and fire officials. We tried to make sure that we were hearing from as many folks as possible, not just the good of home fire sprinklers, but maybe some of the more challenging pieces. And we shared the information openly—there was no hiding what we were trying to do. In California, the office of state fire marshal tries to be very open and transparent about our rule-making packages. This all happened at least two years before we even got to the code-adoption process, so it was a rather lengthy process if you consider all the pre-work that went into it.

Where did the opposition come from and what were some of the concerns you heard? How did you address those issues?

One of the biggest concerns we heard was about the added cost it was going to have on builders and developers. When we sat down with the builders and developers, we also sat down with building officials and fire officials, and talked about other places in the code where we could offer incentives such as construction modifications, recognizing that now we would have properties sprinklered. We made some adjustments with codes involving separation of property lines, and separation between garages and the structure. We also made amendments to standards that required sprinklers in garages, because we knew about 90 percent of jurisdictions that already had home fire sprinkler ordinances were requiring garages to be sprinklered anyway. We also thought that if we developed a statewide standard for home fire sprinklers it would drive down the cost of sprinklers.

Tonya Hoover

WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM MY FRIENDS.  The successful adoption of sprinkler requirements in California came about in part through wide-ranging partnerships, Hoover says.  Maintaining those requirements calls for a similar effort.

PHOTO: Beth Baugher

 

How did NFPA help with the sprinkler push in California?

NFPA’s Southwest Regional director, Ray Bizal, was very helpful with providing the standards that we needed when we were working as a task-force group. It was really helpful to have the information available. Technical reports were very helpful. Access to some of the leadership on the subject was very helpful. When you can call up some of the key players in the standard-making process and ask questions and get it first-hand and get it back to a task-force group that has questions and do that quickly, it gives you the opportunity to move onto the next subject and you’re not spending a whole lot of time dwelling on one item. So NFPA was very helpful and open to sharing its information.

After all that work, how difficult was it to get the Buildings Commission to adopt the sprinkler code?

It took about a minute and a half to adopt the package when we went before the building standards commission on January 12, 2010. We did not have anyone speak against our package. We had people there who you might have thought would speak out against it—they may not have whole-heartedly supported home fire sprinklers, but they supported the effort and the way we went about creating our rule-making package. They supported the state fire marshal’s rule-making process. We got a unanimous vote—and then the heavy lifting started.

What kind of heavy lifting?

Adoption was only the beginning. We have spent a lot of time over the last five years helping with the education process—there was a lot of explaining going on. Then new things would crop up, such as, “OK, who can install a home fire sprinkler? Who has authority to review the plans? Does the state mandate that a fire official do the fire inspection?”

Even though we had more than 160 local jurisdictions with home fire sprinkler ordinances already in place before the statewide adoption, we still had areas of California that had never seen a home fire sprinkler, and this was a challenge for them. Many wanted to know who was going to do the plan review. Some areas may have had water-supply issues. Other places worried whether there would be enough contractors to install sprinklers if homebuilding picked up. There were just all sorts of little things that crept up.

Sounds like a good opportunity for a traveling road show.

Some areas had concerns about sprinklers’ effectiveness, and we were able to go talk to them one on one. We had this philosophy of “you call, we haul, that’s all.” We had a division chief and two other folks, all integral to our adoption process, travel up and down the state for four or five months giving presentations on our code adoption package, helping folks understand the effectiveness of home fire sprinklers, what the state mandate was about, what to look for when installing, how you might want to reach out for plan review—every aspect of sprinklers. After they were done giving presentations, these three individuals came back with a necklace full of hotel keys and gave it to me as a prize. It was a reminder of how far and wide they went to get the word out.

Despite its successful campaign and code adoption, the state’s fire sprinkler coalition remains intact and active. How come?

I think one of the biggest mistakes we could make would be to think that home fire sprinklers are chiseled in stone like the Ten Commandments. I believe that you have to continue the message, and the sprinkler coalition continues the message. They answer questions and they work with local jurisdictions that may have some hiccup in their code adoption. They help builders and developers work through challenges. The coalition is an opportunity to get ahead of the curve on a lot of these items.

Where is public opinion on the sprinkler requirement since it took effect in 2011?

It’s hard to gauge. California is such a large, diversified state, so it depends on who you talk to. I think the cost of sprinklers will always drive the opinion. In California, the average cost of a home fire sprinkler installation is about $1.35 per sprinklered square foot, and I know places that can install it for $1 per sprinklered square foot. We are continuing to work to keep that cost down so that that it does not impact the cost of homes. At the same time, I think for folks that have lived through or have suffered through the devastation of fire, when you talk about home fire sprinklers to them—if sprinklers would have meant that they could have saved their home or possessions, or that they would not have lost a loved one—I think they support them wholeheartedly. I’m not naive enough to think there aren’t people out there saying this is another example of big brother saying what we can and can’t do. I see it as an opportunity to educate and have an impact on our fire loss here in California.

Do you think California’s home fire sprinkler requirement is here to stay?

If I’ve learned anything, it’s never say never. There was legislation proposed about a year after the home fire sprinkler provisions went into place asking for a moratorium [on the sprinkler requirement] in some of our more rural areas. We addressed questions from the proponents of that legislation, and it basically died. It’s back to education and working and answering questions. It’s hard to tell what the future will bring, which is why we constantly keep engaged, because you just don’t know. You don’t know what will happen if California takes another economic downturn and the impact that may have. You don’t know if somebody will start cherry-picking regulations, because often those economic downturns get blamed on regulatory tools, which speaks to a lack of understanding about why some of these rules exist. I hope it’s here to stay. We’re going to work very hard to make sure it is maintained in our codes and we are going to continue to work very hard to make sure it is successful.

Jesse Roman is the staff writer of NFPA Journal.