Posted: Thursday, May 8, 2014 8:41 am | Updated: 10:26 am, Thu May 8, 2014.
ST. PAUL — Fire chiefs are blasting a provision advancing in the Minnesota Senate that would prohibit the state from requiring that fire sprinklers be installed in new homes.
Tucked within the Senate's construction borrowing bill is a measure that would prevent a fire sprinkler mandate from being added to the state's building codes. The International Residential Building Code requires the installation of fire sprinklers. The Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry last year approved a new rule requiring fire sprinklers be built in homes that are 4,500-square-feet or larger.
Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, sponsored a bill to prohibit a sprinkler mandate and pushed to get it into the Senate's bill. He and other supporters argue it would boost the cost of building homes, hurting the state's construction industry. He added that sprinklers would do little to prevent fire fatalities.
"Any fire chief in this building at this moment knows people die of smoke inhalation. They do not die of being incinerated," Senjem said. "The idea that we need sprinklers to save lives is almost ridiculous. We need smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors."
But Steven Jurrens, president of the Minnesota State Fire Department Association Region 15, which represents more than 80 fire departments in southeast Minnesota, disagrees. He cited research that shows the risk of dying in a home fire drops by 80 percent when sprinklers are present.
"Jobs are one thing but life safety, making sure we don't have people die in our communities, is really a high priority as well," Jurrens said.
He said newly-constructed homes are made from more flammable material, giving residents less time to safely escape their homes in the case of a fire. That's especially critical in rural Minnesota where many cities rely on volunteer fire departments instead of full-time departments with instant responses.
During a Senate Finance Committee hearing on Tuesday, Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, offered an amendment to the Senate bonding bill seeking to strip out the prohibiting on a fire sprinkler mandate.
"You are basically holding us hostage to support a provision that we have never supported in order to support a larger package that has other items that are really, really important to us," Dibble said.
He also said it makes no sense to include the provision in the $846 million construction bill.
But the bill's author, Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, defended the provision. He said the measure includes millions of dollars in housing money and a sprinkler mandate would increase the cost of those projects. He also noted that such a measure has the potential to put Minnesota's construction industry at a competitive disadvantage because surrounding states had not adopted a sprinkler mandate.
Ultimately, the committee defeated Dibble's amendment to strike the fire sprinkler language from the bill on a voice vote. But the battle over the issue is likely far from over. The bill still needs to clear the Minnesota Senate. The House's bonding bill also does not contain this language.
Also worth noting is DFL Gov. Mark Dayton's opposition to getting rid of a sprinkler mandate. He previously vetoed two bills that would have gotten rid of the mandate. In a 2012 veto letter, Dayton wrote, "I take very seriously the concerns which fire safety professionals have expressed about the safety of home residents, their properties, and the lives of the men and women who courageously risk their lives to fight those fires."
But builders in the state are pushing hard to block a fire sprinkler mandate. That includes Rochester Area Builders.
Matt Limoges, the group's public affairs director, said such a sprinkler mandate on average adds $13,000 or more to the cost of a home. He added that since the state in 2000 required that new homes be built with hard-wired smoke detectors, there have been no fire fatalities in these homes.
And while he said it is true that construction materials used in new homes are more flammable, he said there are options for reducing the risk of floors caving in due to a fire by sheetrocking the ceiling of the basement. In addition, more than 40 states have chosen not to adopt the fire-sprinkler mandate.
"Home indoor sprinkler systems aren't a bad idea," Limoges said. "We just don't think they should be mandated by the government for all new construction."