Voluntary approach to home fire sprinklers works in Canada

Still, some efforts are underway to encourage provinces to mandate them in new homes
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Monday, November 11, 2013

MARKHAM, Ontario—Incentives for builders, as well as encouragement and education. Without governmental mandates requiring residential fire sprinklers in Canada, advocates are using such voluntary approaches to persuade homebuilders to install the life-saving devices in new homes.

The softer sell has been effective, according to John Galt, president of the Canadian Automatic Sprinkler Association (CASA), based here.

“In Canada,” he told Security Systems News, “… we’re working with homebuilders on voluntary installation of residential sprinklers. They’re doing it on a subdivision basis to get tradeoffs [such as being able to include more houses per hectare] and it’s been working fairly well that way, and it has been growing across the country.”

Also, Chief Bruce Montone of the Windsor, Ontario, Fire & Rescue Services, is planning to ask the Windsor City Council this month to take a stand on home fire sprinklers,  “strongly encouraging … and supporting” that they be required in new homes. In addition, said Montone, a longtime fire sprinkler advocate, the city could take such steps as offering incentives to builders and also requiring them to “properly educate homeowners” about the option of sprinklers in new homes.

In the United States, an increasing number of local communities are mandating that new homes have residential fire sprinklers. Also, two states, California and Maryland, now require them statewide. A recent study by the Fire Protection Research Foundation showed that the increasing number of home fire sprinklers is causing the cost of installation to drop.

But a different approach is necessary in Canada, because in most provinces, the provincial building codes don’t require home fire sprinklers, Galt said.

And unlike the U.S., where state regulations set minimum standards that local communities can make tougher if they want, provincial codes set both a minimum and maximum standard, he said. That means that local communities can’t pass mandates that go beyond what the province requires, Galt explained.

In Canada, he said, provinces require fire sprinklers in buildings that are more than three stories or whose footprint exceeds a certain size. But most homes don’t fit those specifications and aren’t required to be sprinklered.

Galt said provinces haven’t wanted to require home sprinklers across an entire province out of concern that the mandate would be too onerous in areas like the rural north that lack public water. “[Sprinkler] costs do go up in rural environments,” he said.

Still, he said, along with its efforts to get homebuilders to voluntarily add home sprinklers, CASA is advocating for change at the provincial level. “We have proposals before the provincial codes,” he told SSN.

And Chief Montone believes that if cities like Windsor come out in support of home fires sprinklers, that will result in the province of Ontario taking a stand. “The only way I’m going to get our provincial advisory group to say that Ontario stands up in favor of residential sprinklers is to get who they represent, the municipalities, to stand up and say it,” Montone said.

He plans to ask the City Council on Nov. 18 to approve a bylaw that would require fire sprinklers in new homes. And even though the city wouldn’t have the legal authority to enforce it—because the law would exceed what the province of Ontario requires—it would send a message, Montone said.

“It would be moot legislatively but it would not be moot for advancing the cause,” he said.

Montone, who has been fire chief in Windsor for two years, said the city needs to take action because “we have the worst fire loss and the worst fire fatality/fire injury rate in the country.” He added, “There’s just no better protection than residential smoke alarms and residential fire sprinklers used in combination, so I will continue the fight.”

The chief also is proposing to have the city take over fire alarm monitoring, by mandating direct connection to its communications center to reduce notification time. “It’s basically a matter of going into competition with the regular fire alarm companies,” said Montone, who said Windsor would charge a monitoring fee for the service.

Municipalities in Illinois that have tried to monopolize fire alarm monitoring have been sued by ADT and other alarm companies. The federal lawsuit is still pending, but a court ruling this summer, which found a fire district’s municipal monitoring system “less reliable and more dangerous” than private ones, was a win for the alarm companies.

But Montone said that the city of Kitchener, Ontario, for 20 years has required structures located beyond a certain distance from a fire station to have a direct connection to its municipal communications center. In Canada, he said, municipalities that offer fire protection have the legal authority to establish the level of service.