Perspectives - January / February 2013
. Author(s): Scott Sutherland. .

Update: Administrative Law Judge Eric Lipman issued a report in February on Minnesota’s Department of Labor and Industry’s (DLI) proposed amendments to its residential building code. In the report, Lipman concludes that DLI has the statutory authority to adopt the rules the agency has proposed, including the requirement to install automatic fire sprinkler systems in new single-family homes more than 4,500 square feet. DLI anticipates an effective date of Fall 2014. Read the full report.

THE OPPOSTION TO HOME FIRE SPRINKLERS in Minnesota has been as biting as the state’s winters. The Minnesota State Legislature, for instance, passed bills in 2011 and 2012 prohibiting new mandates on sprinkler installation in the state’s residential building code.

Fortunately for sprinkler advocates, the state also has some powerful players on their side. Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed both bills, stating in a decision letter for the 2012 bill that "I take very seriously the concerns which fire safety professionals have expressed about the safety of home residents, their properties, and the lives of [firefighters]. They contend that, with fire sprinkler systems in place, fires could be more readily contained, resulting in fewer injuries and deaths to homeowners and firefighters." In July, NFPA recognized Dayton with a special award for his commitment to fire safety.

The issue now rests with the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry, which is in the process of updating its residential building code and wants to incorporate more stringent sprinkler provisions. According to current code requirements in Minnesota, two-family dwellings and townhouses of a certain size must be sprinklered. New proposals from the state’s Department of Labor and Industry would call for the sprinklering all of these residences, as well as new single-family dwellings of 4,500 square feet (418 square meters) or more.

The battle, however, isn’t over. An advisory committee convened by the department and comprised of residential construction stakeholders has come out against sprinkler mandates for single-family homes. Backing this recommendation is the Builders Association of the Twin Cities, the Builders Association of Minnesota, and other business groups. In a recent press release, sprinkler opponents called these proposals "costly" and unnecessary, arguing that "newly built homes are a model for safety today."

Labor and Industry Commissioner Ken Peterson isn’t convinced, and has continued to support sprinklers despite the intense opposition. He and Scott McLellan, the department’s executive director of Construction Codes and Licensing, spoke with NFPA Journal about the statewide controversy.

What prompted the sprinkler push in Minnesota?
Peterson: Minnesota statutes require us to look at the national codes and do as best as we can to model our codes after nationally recognized standards. We saw that the latest building standards call for residential sprinklers, and we went through our discussions and thought [adhering to more stringent sprinkler provisions] was the right thing to do.

Why?
Peterson: It was clear that there was too much property damage from fires nationwide. And even though fire deaths have dropped considerably over the past 20 to 30 years, there’s still too many people dying from residential fires. Every death is one too many as far as we’re concerned. These were major considerations. At the same time, our statute requires us to look at the most economical way of doing things. We had to do a test to balance the cost of sprinkler installation with the preservation of life and property. That was a discussion point among the advisory committee, as was a lot of talk from the building industry that smoke alarms were enough to prevent unnecessary loss of life.

McLellan: Another area of contention was, like in most states, we have rural areas that don’t rely on municipal water. You have to drill a well and have a holding tank. Some folks from upstate Minnesota were concerned about the additional costs sprinklers might impose. So, cost was a big factor. What’s the real cost? What’s the inflated cost? Trying to come up with the right numbers was important to us.

Did you examine NFPA’s data on sprinkler benefits and installation costs?
McLellan: We used some of the research figures in the studies NFPA has published. [The Fire Protection Research Foundation report, "Home Fire Sprinkler Cost Assessment— 2013," places the average cost per sprinklered square foot at $1.31.] This information was brought forward to the advisory committee.

Peterson: There was a wide range of estimates from various vendors who install sprinklers. It appeared to us that those opposing sprinklers would take the high estimates. We also looked at material developed by NFPA and the fire service about the dangers and potential threats to firefighters.

Based on this information, what did the advisory committee recommend?
McLellan: They made a position in the affirmative that they want to sprinkler all two-family dwellings and townhouses, which we haven’t done before. They weren’t going to recommend sprinklers for all single-family dwellings. When the advisory committee met, the housing economy was just starting to rise from the ashes. There was real sensitivity on the part of the homebuilders, who were fearful that any added cost could shake the recovery.

Peterson: We were hesitant to impose any regulations that would in any way forestall or slow down the housing recovery.

That being said, why did you feel that a code requirement for home fire sprinklers was in the state’s best interest?
Peterson: We’re always weighing the cost to the builders and buyers with the cost of losing human life and property. The department decided on its proposed rule: sprinkling every multi-family unit, and for single-family residences we would have a 4,500-square-foot (418-square-meter) threshold. We looked at these larger homes and thought these were the places where the most property damage and the greatest potential threat to life would occur.

McLellan: When we refer to loss of life, we’re also referring to first responders. Our new building codes require that engineered lumber be protected with Sheetrock or be sprinklered. That provision had been introduced in the code to protect firefighters. It’s not just occupants’ lives we’re concerned about. If there was a potential for a rescue, it’s much more difficult and challenging in those larger homes.

Is that why a 4,500-square-foot threshold was determined for requiring sprinklers in single family dwellings?
McLellan: This figure wasn’t scientific. Two fire service agencies approached us with a phase-in. One recommended a phase-in beginning at 4,000 square feet (371.6 square meters), and the other recommended a phase-in at 5,000 square feet (464.5 square meters) over a three-year period. We rejected the idea for a phase-in and opted for 4,500 square feet (418 square meters). We thought a phase-in would be too confusing for builders.

Have you modeled your efforts after other states — particularly California and Maryland — or jurisdictions that have sprinkler mandates on the books?
Peterson: We knew that efforts were made in California and Maryland, but we wanted to do what’s best for Minnesota. We made our own decisions. Those decisions by your department and Gov. Dayton supporting sprinklers weren’t well received by members of your state’s legislature.

Does that concern you?
Peterson: Our legislators can do whatever they want, and they should. Our concern, though, was that they didn’t have the type of information on hand that we did. We felt that they had more of a knee-jerk response as opposed to a well-thought-out response. That’s the great thing about the code system that Minnesota and most states follow — you bring in citizen groups, you talk about and debate the info, and you come up with solutions.

What about the arguments from homebuilder associations that say new homes are safer now than ever, and additional government intervention mandating sprinklers doesn’t justify the costs?
Peterson: I’m not sure about their point asserting that newer homes are less prone to fires than older homes. I haven’t seen strong data on that. In terms of cost, the cost of sprinkler installation has come down. Costs are important and we don’t want to trivialize them. But in larger homes, I don’t think the cost [of installing sprinklers] is that significant to discourage someone from purchasing a home, particularly when you weigh that against the potential threat to life and property. I don’t buy it.

What are the next steps in the code’s rulemaking process?
McLellan: We published notice for a public hearing taking place on December 12 that will let people air their concerns one more time in front of an administrative law judge. Peterson: The judge will weigh the evidence before him and send a report of recommendations to me. Then we decide.

What’s the earliest that sprinkler mandates, if they were to be incorporated into the state’s building code, could become law?
McLellan: Once we get through the administrative process, which could be several more months, the law in Minnesota requires that we don’t enact any new construction laws until 180 days after the administrative process is complete.

Have legislative actions against sprinklers in your state made you rethink your stance?
Peterson: We have our job, and they have their job. Obviously we’re concerned about the feelings of legislators since they reflect the views of their constituents. We talked to a number of members and discussed the issue with them. At the end of the day, we had to look at what we thought was the right thing to do and the appropriate thing to do in Minnesota. We can empathize with those opposed to the views we’re proposing, and I hope they can see the strengths of our side.