NFPA interviews fire marshal from city that recently passed fire sprinkler requirement for its new homes

Rock Island, Illinois, Fire Marshal Greg Marty (left) and Fire Chief Jeff Yerkey

Rock Island (population: 39,000) is a town within the Quad Cities region of Illinois and Iowa. This Illinois gem distinguished itself from its neighbors last year by passing a requirement to sprinkler its new homes. I recently interviewed Rock Island's fire marshal, Greg Marty, about tactics that led to the passage and how he and local sprinkler supporters have responded to pushback from the homebuilding industry. 

NFPA: You have been a fire sprinkler advocate for years. How has your position on sprinkler requirements been received by your local decision makers? 

Greg Marty: We hired a new fire chief [Jeff Yerkey] about two years ago. He very strongly believes in [sprinklers]. His thesis for his master's degree was on the use and benefits of residential sprinklers. So he was definitely an advocate for it. Once we presented [fire sprinklers] to our city manager, he also was very much in favor of it. 

The other thing that's unique about Rock Island from some of the other cities is that our relationship with our building department is outstanding. We don't work in opposition to each other; we work side by side. Our building official was also in favor of this. A lot of building officials come out of the trades and they'll fight [sprinklers]. But our building official definitely saw the need, since his father is a retired fire chief. 

How did you go about pushing for a requirement? 

We had a meeting that included the mayor and city manager. The meeting was to discuss the building code update. And that's where the fire chief and I said that we want to adopt the editions of the building and fire code as a whole. We don't want to make any changes. We believe it was written by experts. It's a consensus code that's been voted on by people not only in the fire service but also in the building trades. 

What was their reaction?

We explained studies that show [new homes] collapse faster in fire. People have less time to escape. We basically explained to them that you can't allow houses to be built this way but then pull out the protections that are in place to protect these structures. At that point, they basically got on board and said, "We can explore this." So the next step was a study session where the fire chief and the building official presented to all council members. It was a study session, not a general council meeting, but it was an open meeting. 

At that meeting, they talked about testing, maintenance, and upkeep, so we talked about the two different systems that are available in Illinois--standalone or the multipurpose. They learned how easy and inexpensive sprinklers can be. 

How did this education aid your efforts?

The council members are not experts in all the areas of city government, and that's why they rely on the fire chief and others to basically educate them on the issues before they vote on them. So we thought it was important, before [the sprinkler requirement] was debated openly, to dispel some of the myths and rumors. The education was very important to basically have them understand what they were voting for.

I'm assuming the issue of installation costs came up during the study session or afterwards. 

We used publish documentation, most of which came from NFPA. We cited the national average of $1.35 per sprinklered square foot. We explained that labor costs aren't the same all over the country, so there could be fluctuations. 

When the city council voted in November to approve the building code update and sprinkler requirement, is that when you heard from sprinkler opponents?

It didn't honestly become an issue until after the new year. That's when the pushback really came. We saw the president of the Quad City Area Realtor Association on TV and radio shows. They were taking whatever avenue they could. They were saying the requirement is going to kill growth. They were citing sprinkler installation costs of $4.26 per square foot. Once the pressure really came, we went out and got bids. We looked at houses that had been built here in the city, and we went out and got bids for them. One of those came in at $1.63 a square foot. A news reporter also did a great job with a story on why the fire department believes we need a requirement. She went out to sprinkler companies. A gentleman that actually owns a sprinkler company gave her an estimate of one to two dollars per sprinklered square foot. 

I've read news stories stating that Realtors and homebuilders were never invited to the table when your city was discussing a sprinkler requirement. Is that true? 

That's one of the things that's been cast against us pretty harshly. "We were never told that you're doing this. We were never invited to the table." Well, I'm a regular member of our local chapter of the International Code Council. It includes building officials, fire officials, Realtors, builders, suppliers. We meet once a month. Anytime the subject of sprinklers has come up over the last five years, we've made it very clear that when we do go to this new code, we're going to keep this provision in. We thought we did our due diligence to make it publicly known that we're upgrading to the new code, and our intentions were very clear.

What advice would you give other sprinkler advocates currently pitching a fire sprinkler requirement in their region? 

The thing I would recommend is not only educate the lawmakers about all the benefits. Educate them on the pushback they're going to get. I think we should have been clearer. I think we really should have told them, "This is what they're going to say. We already know their arguments. Here is the data to basically counter it."


With your city and the city of Las Vegas passing a fire sprinkler requirement for new homes around the same time, what do you think this says about the future of this technology in North America? 

Las Vegas is one of the fastest growing areas in the country. What that tells us is this: if lawmakers in an area that's already building, that already has massive growth, are not fearing that sprinkler requirements are going to hurt their residential growth, then smaller cities like ours shouldn't be concerned, either. 

Interview conducted, edited, and condensed by Fred Durso, Jr., communications manager for NFPA's Fire Sprinkler Initiative.

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