Fire Safety Issue Erupts in 2 Iowa Suburbs

June 29, 2012

Fire officials and developers in two Des Moines, Iowa., suburbs are squabbling about whether fire sprinklers ought to be required in new townhouses.

The Des Moines Register reported Monday that fire officials in Waukee and Johnston argue the sprinklers are vital to keep town house residents safe from fires in their units and to protect them from blazes in adjoining units.

The Home Builders Association of Greater Des Moines and developers contend the systems aren’t needed and that the costly requirement would be passed to buyers. Estimates run from $4,000 to $6,000 per unit.

The Waukee City Council approved the first two readings of a proposed ordinance that would require any town house development of 8,000 square feet or more to install a sprinkler system. The measure will be implemented if council members approve it in a final vote.

Johnston already has that requirement and is considering tougher requirements as it updates its building codes.

Fire officials said sprinklers are especially vital in town houses because residents are so close and people can’t control what happens in an adjacent unit.

“If you live in a house, you control whether the candle gets put out, you control your house,” Waukee Fire Chief Clint Robinson said. “If you’re living in a town home, there’s five other people that may not be blowing out their candles or have the gas can stored in the garage. The risk level goes up significantly because of the number of people that live in one structure.”

Creighton Cox, executive officer of the Home Builders Association of Greater Des Moines, said builders should have a choice whether to install sprinklers.

Cox has asked the councils in Waukee and Johnson to require sprinklers only if there are more than eight town houses in a row or if units have less than two exits, including doors and windows.

Adam Grubb, an executive with building company Jerry’s Homes, questioned demand for the costly addition.

“We try to build something that’s quality and energy efficient,” Grubb said. “It’s our opinion that it is not a demand of the consumer to have those in there.”

Assistant State Fire Marshal Jeffrey Quigle said building codes are a local issue and he understands why builders object to more stringent sprinkler requirements, but he thinks the systems eventually will become standard.

“They do save lives. They will put out a fire quicker,” he said. “It’s going to take a few years before they really catch hold and sweep across the country. I think we’ll see that, I really do.”

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