The Politics of Safety

Following a recent experience with a post-fire incident, I stumbled across a fascinating subject that will be coming to a theater (town hall) new you within months. What began as a research on home fire safety, quickly evolved into a fairly deep look into the subject of residential fire sprinklers. All man-made structures today are typically governed by building codes, architectural design, engineering standards, and other locally adopted practices that have been promulgated since the beginning of time.... The most prevelant of these institutions is the International Code Congress (ICC), an institution which is comprised of voting members with building and safety background from all over the country. The ICC produces a set of codes; namely, the International Residential Code (IRC), which specifies minimal building requirements for our new homes and remodeling projects. The IRC has recently denied an appeal by the Home Builder's Association in it's attempt to block the passage of the ICC's 2009 IRC provision which requires all new residential dwellings to install and maintain fire sprinkler systems. The current 2006 IRC has a provision for fire sprinkler systems in it's Appendix, and has been locally adopted by several municipalities throughout the country. 

ICC codes are revised once every three years, and local municipalites have the discretion to accept such codes, or they choose to enforce a distinctly different set of rules. Local municipalities have, over time, been granted quite broad sweeping health and safety regulatory and enforcement powers. The City of Mountain Brook, for instance, accepted the 2006 IRC and the 2008 Electrical Code (on different cycles), and enforces the building codes by conducting an average of 6 inspections on each new home and remodeling project (electrical rough, mechanical rough, plumbing rough, framing, electrical finish, mechanical finish, plumbing finish, building inspection). Since Mountain Brook is inside the Jefferson County jurisdiction, further inspections typically include environment impact, otherwise known as "potty counting" for sewer impact fees. On the other hand, if I were building a million dollar home in a neighboring county, I may not have to pull an inspection at all. Why am I talking about all of this? Simply because I am setting the stage for the discussion of the impact of the 2009 IRC fire sprinkler requirement. This issue is explosive on a number of fronts and is surrounded by enormously powerful and influencial political and economic special interest groups. Residential fire sprinklers have been lobbied for and against by some of the country's largest lobbying powers, legislated on by state and local governmental powers, have a multi-billion dollar economic impact, and have reportedly saved lives in multi-occupancy settings. For a simple illustration, I will present a short list of some of the talking points for opposing sides of the issue:


  • Saves lives.
  • Cost effective safety upgrade (approximately 1.5% of total cost of construction).
  • Extremely reliable.
  • Low profile of sprinkler heads  are unobtrusvie.
  • Stimulate economy by creating jobs.
  • Widespread consensus on the implementation of the provision.


  • Too costly on homebuilders and homeowners.
  • Mandatory installation infringes upon individual rights.
  • Unreliable.
  • Bad for the economy.
  • Other means of construction increase home fire safety.
  • Unfair special interest interaction in the implematation of the provision.


What will the possible local impact be if the City of Mountain Brook, or other Greater Birmingham Area Municipalities, adopt the 2009 IRC in it's entirety? First of all, even if the new code was adopted, it wouldn't take affect until sometime in 2011. If the code is accepted, the Fire Marshals (fire departments) will, for the first time in modern history have a "pre-fire" interest in new homes. Currently, Fire Marshals have oversight in commercial settings. Some of their recurring commercial inspections include ingress/egress standards, emergency exits, fire extinguishers, and fire sprinkler systems. In the short-term, the Fire Marshals will have to inspect the installation, and possibly return for periodic inspections, of the installed systems. As an aside, there is technology currently available that can detect a leaking sprinkler head and alarm local officials; however, the statistical rate of 1 in 16 million accident discharges makes you more likely to hit the lottery than come back from the beach and find your sofa floating around in your living room. Another short-term effect is that most plumbers aren't certified to install fire suppression sytems, so the installations will be handled by the few fire suppression specialists in the area. Their will undoubtedly be a surge in this industry. From what I have picked up on by talking with local personalites and internet research, building inpectors could become trained and credentialed to take the load off of the Fire Marshals, and that the fire suppression industry would make similar adjustments to handle the increased business. 

In closing, I find myself supporting the belief that there is a fine line between home safety and governmental reach. There's no doubt that such legislation means big bucks for the sprinkler and fire safety industry, local governments adopting the measure will have to adjust their inspection procedures, budget, and revenues, costs of construction will increase, the insurance industry will play their role (some have reportedly given credits for the sprinkler use)...kind of a stimulus package of it's own... and perhaps, the overall safety of new homes will increase; however, the most insidious aspect of this whole issue is that there are outside forces that are systematically stripping away the automony of property owner's. The life and safety claim is seemingly an irristable "trump card", and the story will be interesting to see unfold.... A couple of jurisdictions have already passed legislation that nullifies the mandatory installation of sprinkler systems from the 2009 IRC, as they embrace the rest of it, others will openly accept it, and the rest will simply not adopt the entire code book.

Please visit the numerous websites that support or oppose the 2009 IRC fire sprinkler issue. It's a very fascinating subject and I believe it has deeper, more constitutional issues than many of the authors fully grasp.