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Date of Issue: November 22, 2007

Fire commission to push home sprinklers

Kurt Lathrop uses statistics to persuade people that putting sprinkler systems in homes is a good idea.

Fires in single-family homes and duplexes caused $5.7 billion in property losses last year.

Eight in 10 fire fatalities occur in the home.

The deputy fire marshal also uses examples to encourage the installation of sprinkler systems in new single-family homes and duplexes.

Earlier this fall, a fire swept quickly through a two-story North Carolina beach house, killing seven college students and renewing calls for placing sprinkler systems in homes. A sprinkler system in the structure would have cost about $3,500, according to Lathrop.

“Less than 1 percent of homes are sprinkled,” he said. “A lot of people just don’t even know they can.… It’s something - that fires still kill when we have the technology we have.”

But Lathrop and WMFR deputy chief Brett Pollock needed neither statistics nor examples to persuade the district’s commissioners that promoting residential sprinklers is a wise move.

The district commissioners, meeting at Station No. 1 in Holmes Beach Nov. 15, encouraged an effort to draft a countywide ordinance on sprinklers in single-family homes and duplexes.

In the meantime, the commissioners urged Lathrop, Pollock and WMFR Chief Andy Price to draft an ordinance providing incentives for builders and new homeowners to voluntarily install sprinkler systems.

WMFR officials have been working for about two years with other fire district officials to draft a countywide ordinance on residential sprinklers. Currently sprinkler systems are required in commercial structures, public buildings and dwellings for three or more families.

“Residential sprinklers, for us, is a whole new animal,” said Lathrop. “Though we’ve had sprinklers for fires for more than 100 years.”

Across the country, fire departments, municipalities and state legislators increasingly are pressing for sprinkler systems in homes.

San Clemente and Corte Madera, Calif., were two of the first communities to adopt residential sprinkler ordinances. Altamonte Springs was the first community to adopt such an ordinance in Florida.

When sprinklers are present, the chances of dying in a fire are reduced by one-half to three-fourths and the average property loss per fire is cut by one-half to two-thirds, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

The primary opponents of residential sprinkler regulations are building associations, which argue that the new mandates are too burdensome, adding $1 to $6 per square foot to the cost of a new home.

Building associations have turned back efforts to pass mandatory residential sprinkler measures in Tallahassee and by the International Code Congress.

Lathrop maintains that a residential sprinkler system costs less to install than a sprinkler system in the yard. The cost, he said, is about $1.50 per square foot.

“And it’s like having a firefighter in your house 24/7,” he said.

Residential sprinkler systems are heat-activated. When the temperature reaches about 160 degrees, a sprinkler goes off.

Sprinklers in a structure do not operate “like in the movies,” he said, all going off at once. Rather, each sprinkler is heat-sensitive.

A home sprinkler system is a network of piping installed behind walls and in ceilings, with individual sprinkler heads placed along the piping. The pipes are filled with water under pressure. If a fire breaks out, the air temperature rises and activates the sprinkler, which can release about 10-25 gallons of water per minute.

To move forward with a countywide ordinance, fire officials need to complete a survey of needs and analyze possible incentives, such as rebates or waivers on impact fees for new homes built with sprinklers.

Lathrop said the height and square footage of new homes in the area make sprinkler systems necessary. “It’s a no-brainer,” he said. “On the Island, there’s a lot of tearing down and building bigger.”

Commissioners, during the workshop, expressed their enthusiasm for a countywide ordinance, but also endorsed an interim ordinance that would provide a financial incentive for adding sprinklers in new homes.

“Let’s move it along, get it going,” said Commissioner Larry Tyler.

Two area fire districts presently provide incentives - North River offers a 25 percent reduction of fire taxes on properties with sprinklers and East Manatee offers a 20 percent reduction on fire taxes for sprinkled properties.

In other business during last week’s meeting, Price updated the commissioners on the planning taking place for the rehab of the Anna Maria Island Bridge.

The bridge will be renovated over 400 days beginning in early January 2008. A portion of the work will require a 45-day full closure of the bridge next fall, according to the Florida Department of Transportation.

Price told commissioners he and other public safety officers are working with the DOT to reduce the impact of the closure on emergency operations.

With financial assistance from the state, the fire department likely will hire additional staff for the Holmes Beach station during the closure. An extra Emergency Medical Services vehicle may be placed at the station, or an additional paramedic may be assigned to the Island.

Price said Island public safety officers and DOT representatives plan to meet in December to further discuss plans and to review traffic projections during the rehab.

The next commission meeting will take place at the Holmes Beach station house at 6 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 20.

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