Town passes fire sprinkler ordinance for new homes following successful pitch by fire chief

It was Christmas Eve, and a teenaged Paul Zbikowski was with his family when a fire erupted in the upstairs unit of the two-family home. Once noticing the fire, Zbikowski scooped his two brothers off the living room floor and ran for safety with his sister in tow. He then filled buckets of water and handed them to his parents, who attempted to control the fire until firefighters arrived. (Zbikowski now knows that if a home is on fire, leave it to the professionals. Get out and stay out.) "That was my first firefighting effort," says Zbikowski, a 40-year member of the fire service and currently fire chief for the Berlin, Massachusetts, Fire & EMS Department.

The culprit was soot buildup in the home's chimney. As the firefighters extinguished the blaze, Zbikowski vividly remembers "waterfalls of water," which could have been lessened if fire sprinklers were present. "I've been in the business for 40 years and have seen the effects of buildings with sprinklers and the ones without," he tells NFPA. 

This year was prime time for Zbikowski to push for a requirement to sprinkler Berlin's new homes. He cites a projected influx of new residents in town (over the next five years, the town of 3,100 people will expand by 25 percent, he says) and new development (under way is a four-story hotel, 225-unit apartment complex, and a couple residences for older adults). There's also the possibility of other residential developments. These new projects could strain the town's current fire suppression systems. Berlin doesn't have its own public water supply and relies on a series of cisterns, which Zbikowski calls "problematic" and could be ill-equipped to handle the needs of new development. 

He initially pitched the idea for a sprinkler requirement to his town's building commissioner, who liked the idea. Zbikowski then addressed it at recent town meeting, the next step in Berlin's approval process. In a nutshell, the proposed regulation would require fire sprinklers in new developments with three or more units. "If it's a subdivision and it's only three homes, it'll be sprinklered," he says. Zbikowski referenced NFPA's research on installation costs during his presentation. The pitch and the information Zbikowski had presented worked; the town decided to move forward with its own ordinance. The state attorney general's office approved the new regulations in August.

Zbikowski was a bit surprised that the requirement didn't receive any pushback during the town meeting. What may have made this palatable for his town is the way fire sprinklers would be less taxing on water than traditional firefighting operations. Newly sprinklered homes will have a 600-gallon tank of water in the basement for sprinklers, since the town lacks its own public water supply. 

In the event of an activation, "in most cases, we're going to go there, turn the sprinklers off, and mop up," says Zbikowski. 

NFPA commends Zbikowski's efforts that led to the passage of this new requirement. 

Make a convincing case for sprinklers by incorporating these seven points into your pitch for a fire sprinkler requirement. 

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