Fight to require home sprinklers ongoing in Massachusetts

Lawmakers just killed a bill to let municipalities require sprinklers in new homes, but more bills expected in 2015
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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

HOLYOKE, Mass.—A fatal rooming house fire 30 years ago on July 4 led the Massachusetts Legislature to quickly pass legislation allowing local communities in the Commonwealth to require sprinklers in boarding houses. But today’s lawmakers recently killed a similar bill that would have let communities require sprinklers in new homes.

David LaFond, New England regional manager for the New York-based National Fire Sprinkler Association observed to Security Systems, “If we look at our history [in Massachusetts], it takes tragedy to enact fire safety legislation.” But he fervently hopes that won’t be the case when it comes to home fire sprinklers in the Commonwealth.

LaFond, who is based here, said he and other supporters will continue the fight to introduce new legislation regarding residential sprinklers in 2015.

“I’m certainly not giving up on this issue,” he told SSN. “I’m the former fire chief in the city of Holyoke, Mass., so it’s been my life’s quest to ensure the public safety, working as a professional firefighter and fire chief. In working with the National Fire Sprinkler Association, I’m able to continue the cause to ensure our public is safe where they need to be the safest, and that’s in their homes.”

The Massachusetts Fire Sprinkler Coalition, of which LaFond is a member, recently contrasted the way lawmakers reacted after the historic Elliott Chambers Rooming House fire, which occurred in Beverly, Mass. on July 4, 1984, to their inaction today.

That fire killed 15 people and the Legislature reacted swiftly.

“In near-record time, they passed legislation that allowed communities to choose to require sprinklers in boarding and lodging houses,” according to the sprinkler coalition. “Many communities adopted the law, which led to a decline in rooming house fires and related fatalities. The Massachusetts Department of Fire Services dubs the legislation ‘one of the great fire prevention success stories.’”

However, in a news release on the 30th anniversary of that fire, Massachusetts State Fire Marshal Stephen Coan questioned “why the state's 23 fire deaths in one- and two-family homes in 2013 did not lead to a similar response.”

LaFond told SSN that a bill that would have given local communities the option of requiring sprinklers in newly constructed one- and two-family homes was killed in July at the eleventh hour in the Legislature.

“They wouldn’t allow the democratic process to go through and allow each community to decide do we want sprinklers for new construction only,” LaFond said. “…We’re talking about houses that aren’t built yet, for God’s sake.”

He said opponents are homebuilders and realtors who worry sprinklers will cut into their profit margin. But he said the cost of home sprinklers is 1 to 1.5 percent of the total cost of a new home.

Jennifer Mieth, public information officer for the state’s Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, told SSN that the state Board of Building Regulations and Standards adopted the 2009 edition of the International Residential Code in 2011. However, she said, “they specifically exempted the provision for sprinklers in newly built one- and two-family homes.”

“We fought that, but we lost,” Mieth said. She said that led to the local option bill that recently died, even though it was … “a permissive law so that individual communities can choose to adopt.”

LaFond said the state sprinkler coalition will continue to work on educating lawmakers about the need for home fire sprinklers. He hopes new legislation will be introduced in the next legislative session.

Massachusetts does have some residential fire sprinkler requirements, he said. New buildings with three or more residential units must have sprinklers and existing buildings with four or more units that undergo substantial renovation also must install sprinklers, if communities adopt such laws, LaFond said.

A July 10 apartment fire in Lowell, Mass. killed seven people, three of them children. However, that older building was not required to have a sprinkler system, according to news reports.

The state for years also has had a so-called mega-mansion sprinkler requirement for one- and two-family homes that exceed 14,000 square feet. Although LaFond wants smaller homes included too, he’s pleased that at least the larger homes are covered. “We’re chipping away at this over the years,” he said.