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An issue drenched in debate

Advocates of in-home sprinklers cite safety, but builders say it comes down to dollars and cents.

June 06, 2004|Michelle Hofmann | Special to The Times

Tom SAYER has reason to fear fire season. In his youth, flames devastated his family's Point Loma home. And in October, Sayer stood amid the charred remains of his Scripps Ranch home after San Diego County's deadly Cedar fire.

But this year, when the city of San Diego pushed for an emergency building code to require interior fire-sprinkler systems in all new residential construction in high-risk areas, Sayer joined other fire victims and building industry officials to successfully oppose the move.

"There's no fire system on Earth that could have saved our house," said Sayer, who doesn't support placing the financial burden of installing sprinklers, designed for fires starting within a structure, on homeowners trying to rebuild.

Historically, major fires have opened a window for debate about a variety of related safety issues, according to Clifford Hunter, fire marshal for Rancho Santa Fe Fire Protection District in San Diego County.

For about a six-month period after a disaster such as the wildfires of the Cedar and Paradise areas, fire officials often can achieve some code changes, Hunter said. "But then people suddenly and quickly forget what happened, and it starts to become a dollar issue."

Though no one questions the need for safe homes, not everyone agrees on requiring residential fire sprinklers in new construction or during major remodels. Builders cite high installation costs and low market demand. Safety experts counter that there has never been a multiple loss of life in the United States in a fire that started within a home that had a properly maintained sprinkler system.

Sayer is rebuilding without sprinklers, but Steve Johnson didn't have that option when erecting his 3,000-square-foot replacement home in El Cajon. There, the East County Fire Protection District requires sprinklers in all new construction.

More than 67 California jurisdictions have adopted standards beyond state building codes, according to Steve Hart, a former deputy director of the California state fire marshal's office, who is a consultant to the National Fire Sprinkler Assn. And other communities are following suit. On June 26, Downey will begin requiring fire sprinklers in all new construction.

The California Building Code requires fire sprinklers in all commercial or residential buildings of at least 5,000 square feet; in buildings with three or more stories, regardless of height; in complexes with 16 or more apartments; and in hotels with 20 or more dwelling units.

State codes provide minimum fire and life safety standards that leave room for local jurisdictions to further restrict building codes based on geological, topographical or climatic conditions, and other potential hazards, such as limited roadway access and water supply.

Johnson, who completed construction in April, doesn't begrudge the added $3,100 he spent on sprinklers.

"You're not talking about that much money," he said. "If there's an internal fire in the middle of the night and the sprinklers save one life, then that's ... cheap insurance."

On average, sprinkler installation costs range from about $1 to $1.25 per square foot for new construction to $1.50 to $3 per square foot for a remodel or retrofit.

Samy Benarroch's decision to build on a hillside resulted in the city requiring him to install sprinklers in his Beverly Hills Post Office-area home in 2001. "If you want to live in these areas, that's what you need to do," he said. "Otherwise, go to the flats, and you don't need fire sprinklers."

Similarly, when developer Martin Perellis applied for a permit to build a 6,000-square-foot French-style farmhouse in Studio City in October, fire sprinklers were required in the hillside residence and the detached garage.

Los Angeles didn't start the indoor sprinkler trend. Citing cutbacks in governmental spending, fewer firefighters and longer response times, San Clemente became the first city in the nation to require sprinklers in all new construction in 1978. Corte Madera, Livermore and Napa in Northern California followed.

Southern California communities requiring fire sprinklers in all new single-family dwellings include Agoura Hills, Alhambra, Arcadia, Beverly Hills, Burbank, Culver City, Dana Point, Glendale, Glendora, Montebello, Oxnard, Placentia, Rancho Santa Fe, Ramona, Redondo Beach, Riverside, San Gabriel, Santa Monica, Sierra Madre, Stanton, Ventura, Vista and West Hollywood.

Cities such as Buena Park and Cypress have modified sprinkler requirements on new construction that kick in at 3,600 square feet. And the rules are not limited to new construction. Retrofit requirements also can apply to remodels that increase a home's original footprint by 25% to 50%. Beverly Hills, Rancho Santa Fe and Santa Monica, for example, require retrofitted sprinklers throughout a home when square footage grows by 50% or more.

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