BERLIN – Maryland State Fire Marshal William Barnard has been testifying at more town and county meetings than he can recall in an effort to convince legislators not to opt out of a 2009 change to the building code requiring sprinkler systems in new construction of single and double family residences.
It’s a measure that’s been heartily contested by the building industry, which has cited increased construction costs and the continuing reduction of the number of lives lost attributable to smoke detectors.
Barnard said that while it would be cost prohibitive to retrofit current homes, he believed that going forward new homes should be required to have sprinkler systems.
The sprinkler aspect of the building code changes was the only aspect of the 2009 changes to be scheduled to go into effect in 2011 as recognition that the new rules would negatively influence state and local economies. The rest of the changes went into affect immediately.
California and Pennsylvania are the only other states that have opted in to this aspect of the new building standards. The majority of the remaining states have tabled the matter while others have opted out completely. According to the U.S. Fire Administration’s estimates 2,590 deaths were attributed to residential fires nationally last year.
“The local jurisdictions of Maryland have been far ahead of many places,” he said. “This isn’t something that’s absolutely new in Maryland.”
Maryland, which is home to the National Fallen Firefighter’s Foundation, ranks slightly above the national average losing 16.2 residents per million in residential fires, about 91 people total, in 2007.
“There have been jurisdictions [in Maryland] that have chosen to amend the code and remove the requirement for residential fire sprinklers,” Barnard said. “In Garrett County’s case we didn’t know they’d taken the action [until after it passed].”
Garrett County, Washington County, and the town of Frostburg all enacted legislation exempting their new construction single family homes from the law. Barnard said he’d sent letters to try and convince the elected officials of the law’s importance and traveled to Allegany County to testify.
“Unfortunately I can’t be everywhere,” he said. Barnard added that he’s often able to have staff members go to the jurisdictions to make the case for sprinklers.
Garrett County was only particular in that it drafted legislation to opt out of the rules early on in the process. Although the law says that a jurisdiction has to demonstrate a reason specific to their area in order to be exempt, Barnard said Garrett County didn’t really present one. Since then Barnard has brought all of the local and regional resources he was able to bear on the issue.
Last month the Worcester County Board of Commissioners, who have yet to decide on whether or not to opt out of the legislation, held a public hearing on the matter at which local fire service representatives were joined by colleagues from all over the region made the trip to lobby in favor of the legislation. Local developers were also out in force arguing against the cost-prohibitive aspect of the requirements.
The recent Berlin meeting had fewer representatives from either side but was no less passionate.
Much of the debate is occurring at the last possible minute. Both the town of Berlin and Worcester County have to pass opt-out legislation before the end of the year or lose their opportunity to do so and both pushed the vote on the measure back into December.