Gig Harbor is considering requiring all homes built after Jan. 1, 2017, to come equipped with fire sprinklers.
The proposal — which construction professionals say would affect a fraction of the city’s residences — has spurred a debate between fire officials and building industry professionals.
Fire officials argue sprinklers significantly reduce a person’s risk of dying in a home fire and say to not require them would be “shortsighted.”
The Master Builders Association of Pierce County and local builders such as Rush Residential, which is poised to soon add at least 200 homes in the city, say there are other ways to save lives that don’t boost construction costs by $6,000 to $10,000 as fire sprinklers do.
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The City Council will take up the issue at its regular meeting Monday (Oct. 10) at 5:30 p.m. at City Hall, 3510 Grandview Drive. Public comment will be taken.
The council is expected to vote on the requirement at its Oct. 24 meeting.
Council members first debated the issue in June as part of a larger update to the city’s building code. The section dealing with fire sprinklers was tabled after building industry representatives spoke against the requirement.
The International Residential Building Code, which is used across the state to govern construction, includes a section on fire sprinklers, but state law allows each jurisdiction to decide whether to require it. Gig Harbor officials want to implement the code’s sprinkler requirement.
City officials and building industry representatives met over the summer to look for a compromise.
Both parties agreed fire safety prevention education was needed, including information on the importance of smoke alarms, but no common ground was reached on the fire sprinkler debate.
The city proposed waiving and discounting fees and extending the effective date of the requirement to give builders more time to plan, but would not nix the sprinklers altogether, said Paul Rice, Gig Harbor’s building official and fire marshal.
“They look at the national fire protection statistics and see them one way, and we see them the other way,” Rice said of the Master Builders Association. “The main statistic we look at is that residential fire sprinklers reduce the chance of death by 80 percent, and that is a huge, huge number for us.”
Smoke alarms are a necessity, but they aren’t enough, said Eric Waters, prevention division chief for Gig Harbor Fire & Medic One, which provides emergency response to Gig Harbor and unincorporated parts of the peninsula.
“We have seen that the fire conditions are changing much more rapidly, and smoke alarms aren’t enough to give people an appropriate amount of time to get out,” he said.
The contents of today’s homes, including furnishings and wall surfaces, are “highly combustible,” Waters said.
Builders dispute that, saying local building codes govern energy efficiency standards and types of materials used.
“To say that new homes are built with more flammable or combustible products, I couldn’t speak to what he is speaking to because it doesn’t make sense,” said Scott Walker, vice president of Rush Residential.
Walker estimated the fire sprinkler requirement would cost his company an additional $2 million for the homes it has planned in the city.
He cited local fire statistics that show there have been no fire-related deaths within city limits in 15 years.
Jeremiah Lafranca, spokesman for the master builders, argued that most home buyers don’t have fire sprinklers at the top of their “must-have” list when house hunting.
People are looking for granite counter tops and other upgrades, not fire sprinklers, he said.
The debate shouldn’t be about, “Do we value lives or don’t we value lives?” Walker said, but instead, “Are we solving a real problem?”
“There are so many different means and methods where you can provide people increased life safety without going to the full extent of fire sprinklers,” Walker said.
That includes requiring all homes to have an integrated fire alarm system, where if one smoke alarm goes off, all alarms in the house activate.
Because a high percentage of house fires happen in the kitchen, options such as installing a single fire sprinkler only in the kitchen would increase fire safety, Walker said, although he noted water wouldn’t help with a grease fire.
If the City Council approves the requirement, Gig Harbor will join Bonney Lake and DuPont as the only other Pierce County cities requiring residential fire sprinklers in new homes.
Pierce County requires homes outside a fire district to have fire sprinklers, said county Fire Marshal Warner Webb. The County Council soon will hear a proposal that homes of 5,000 square feet or more be required to have sprinklers.
Webb supports the fire sprinkler requirement, he said, but hasn’t proposed it because the political climate isn’t favorable.
“They made it very clear to me not to bring it forward unless I had one heck of a good reason to do it,” he said of the County Council and County Executive Pat McCarthy. “They know there will be a time for it. We just don’t feel the time is right now.”