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Illinois State Fire Marshal Withdraws Fire Sprinkler Requirement

by Peter Thomas Ricci

Fire_Sprinkler_InstallersAfter considerable anticipation, the Office of the Illinois State Fire Marshal has announced that it is withdrawing its proposal that all existing and new single-family and multifamily residences built in the Land of Lincoln be required to include fire sprinklers.

“As the brave first responders alongside whom I have served during four decades in fire protection know, Illinois needs 21st century fire safety standards,” Fire Marshal Larry Matkaitis said in a statement. “[But] in the course of this process, it’s become clear that any proposed state rule needs additional refinement.”

Matkaitis added that he came to his conclusion after receiving an “unprecedented amount” of feedback from Illinois residents on the measure, which would have made Illinois only the third state (after California and Maryland) to adopt such a requirement.

The Polarizing Effect of Mandated Fire Sprinklers

Previously, the state’s fire marshal’s office had been in support of the proposal. Andrew Mason, a spokesman for the office, told The Chicago Tribune that not only do fire sprinklers save lives, but their increased usage is gaining support in the greater community.

“We think we’re getting to a tipping point where this makes sense for a lot of people,” he said. “We know it saves lives.”

Also, the Tribune noted that, according to proponents, the costs of such a measure would not be too strenuous. Along with lowering home insurance costs, the national average of fire sprinklers amount to an extra $1.61 a square foot, or roughly an extra $3,200 for a 2,000-square-foot home; those costs, though, could increase if a municipality decides that a larger waterline or separate waterline is needed for the sprinkler system.

There is far from a consensus, though, that a fire sprinkler requirement would be a good thing, with the Tribune noting that homebuilders and local governments dislike the costs and bureaucracy that could come with the requirement.

One Chicagoland community that already requires sprinklers in new single-family homes is Long Grove, and Brian Brunhofer, the president and owner of Meritus Homes, told the Tribune that the requirement adds $9,000 to $10,000 to the 2,600-square-foot to 3,600-square-foot homes that Meritus builds in the community.

“I wouldn’t say that’s a feature that many people come in looking for,” Brunhofer said. “We like to let people choose what they want, whether it be on the exterior or the interior. (Fire sprinklers) are designed to be as aesthetically pleasing as possible, but you can’t hide a fire suppression sprinkler head.”

Other Chicagoland cities have sprinkler rules, though there are notable caveats. Aurora, for instance, opposes a statewide mandate, though it requires new homes with a first floor of 5,000 square feet or larger to install fire sprinklers. Similarly, Elgin opposes the mandate, but since October 2012, the city has required builders of new homes to either install sprinklers or follow specific building techniques – all builders, thus far, have chosen the building techniques.

Exponential Costs

And those costs and inconveniences only involve new construction properties. For existing condominiums, including Chicago’s landmark skyscrapers, the costs of incorporating sprinklers would have been exponential.

“The rules could have been well-intentioned, but they would have bankrupted many condominium associations,” Chicago alderman Bob Fioretti told the Chicago Sun-Times, adding that the cost of updating some condos would run into the millions of dollars. “People could not afford it. They wouldn’t have been able to afford the assessment and rent increases. They would have had to leave. These rules would have been an economic disaster for Chicago.”

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