Proposed fire-sprinkler requirement for new homes is put on hold

News-DemocratAugust 2, 2013 

— Amid opposition from some local lawmakers, the state fire marshal withdrew a proposed rule that would have required the installation of sprinklers in new homes.

The sprinkler requirement was part of an update to the state's fire-safety code proposed by Fire Marshal Larry Matkaitis. Matkaitis on Friday said he was withdrawing the proposal, which critics said would have added thousands to the cost of a new home.

"We have received an unprecedented amount of public input and suggestions through emails, letters and public meetings," Matkaitis said. "In the course of this process, it's become clear that any proposed state rule needs additional refinement. Therefore today I am officially withdrawing the proposed rule before the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules to take into account substantial public comment and carefully re-examine this issue."

That committee, which consists of 12 state lawmakers and is also known as JCAR, makes decisions on rules, such as fire codes and health codes, that are proposed by state agencies. Those codes have the same force and effect as state laws.

A public hearing on the proposed changes to the fire code had been scheduled for next week.

Some metro-east lawmakers have voiced opposition to the proposed sprinkler rule.

Rep. Dwight Kay, R-Glen Carbon, said: "This mandate to increase the cost of purchasing a new home by as much as $18,000 does not sound like the American dream. It should continue to be the homeowner's choice whether or not to install fire sprinklers in their home. The metro-east has seen record population growth in the past decade as a result of new homes being built in our communities, but a mandate this high will have a negative impact."

Rep. Charlie Meier, R-Okawville, said: "Aside from farming, I build subdivisions in the Okawville area. This mandate will directly and negatively impact home construction in Illinois, putting a lot of people out of work at a time when we need to be working to create more jobs."

One Illinois home-builder association estimated that installation of a sprinkler system could add $7,000 to $18,000 to the cost of a new home. The fire marshal's office, however, has said the national average for installing sprinklers in a new home is $1.61 per square foot, which would come to $3,220 for a 2,000-square-foot home.

Supporters of the rule change said it would have saved lives of residents as well as firefighters. Supporters included Rep. Eddie Lee Jackson, D-East St. Louis, who cast a critical committee vote in May that allowed the fire marshal to proceed with the plan.

Fire-safety groups argued that 91 Illinois communities already require sprinklers in new homes. They also argued that today's homes are built with materials that burn faster and hotter.

Tom Lia, director of the Northern Illinois Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board, said there have been 55 fire fatalities in Illinois this year, all but one of which has been in a residential fire.

"We support the state fire marshal and members of the Illinois fire service, especially the firefighters who risk their lives every time there is a fire call," Lia said. "We need to do what's right so that no more fire deaths occur in Illinois."

Matkaitis, the fire marshal, said Illinois "needs 21st-century fire safety standards."

He added: "We plan to regroup and meet with stakeholders before once again moving forward. We will not give up on our goal to provide the highest level of fire safety to Illinois residents and first responders."

Matkaitis' proposal would have required sprinklers in older high-rise apartment buildings. That riled Chicagoans, who feared the measure would drive up rents and bankrupt condominium associations.

Contact reporter Brian Brueggemann at bbrueggemann@bnd.com or 239-2511.

Contact reporter Brian Brueggemann at bbrueggemann@bnd.com or 239-2511.

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