Olympia council votes 6-1 for sprinklers in homes

Rule would apply beginning July 1, 2014, but some say modern smoke alarms are enough

Staff writerMay 22, 2013 

Beginning next summer, new homes built in Olympia will have to have sprinkler systems, the Olympia City Council decided in a preliminary 6-1 vote Tuesday night.

The council is expected to take a final vote on the matter next week.

The sprinkler requirement will apply to residential building permits issued on or after July 1, 2014.

Tom Hill, the city’s building official, said residential sprinkler systems have one sprinkler head per room, which are activated by heat. If activated, only the sprinkler head in the room affected will disperse water.

Angela White, government affairs director for Olympia Master Builders, said her organization opposes the sprinkler requirement, which can add $1.50 to $8.50 per square foot to the cost of a house. The extra expense would add $3,000 to $17,000 to the sticker price of a 2,000 square-foot home.

She said that modern homes are safer and have hard-wired smoke alarms.

“I think that we may be moving forward on a mandate for something that is not a problem,” she said.

But Olympia Fire Marshal Rob Bradley advocated for the sprinkler requirement. He said fires in homes account for 4 out of 5 fire-related deaths.

He agreed that newer homes are safer than older ones, but said that the newer homes will be old someday. Sprinkler systems also require a lot less water than a fire department response.

“Fire sprinklers are the most cost-effective way to provide fire protection to buildings,” he said.

Councilwoman Karen Rogers cast the lone vote against the measure. She said she could support it, but only if the city could find a way to otherwise reduce the cost of residential sprinklers, which she pegged at $5,000.

Councilwoman Jeannine Roe also raised questions about the cost of sprinklers, though she didn’t outright oppose them. She said, “I admit I’m struggling a little bit” with the issue.

But Councilwoman Julie Hankins and other council members voiced support.

“Smoke detectors are great, but they can’t be our only line of defense,” Hankins said.

The council also moved to require that commercial buildings have sprinklers if they are 5,000 square feet or more, but that requirement would take effect July 1 of this year. The existing requirement applies to buildings of 7,500 square feet or more.

Olympia has been discussing fire sprinklers for years. In 2006, the council voted to require sprinklers in most homes that face narrow, 20-foot-wide streets.

The city adopted the requirement as part of incorporating amendments to the 2012 International Building Code. The sprinkler requirement isn’t in the code, but the state gave local governments the discretion of adding it without state approval.

Other Thurston County cities don’t require sprinklers for all residential buildings. Tumwater requires sprinklers in homes on some narrower streets, Bradley said. Lacey does not require residential sprinklers.

California requires residential sprinklers statewide, Bradley noted.

In other proposed changes to city codes, the council gave preliminary approval to enabling the Port of Olympia to add a boat refueling facility at Swantown Marina by lengthening the allowable distance from a marina gangplank to a fueling dock. If the council approves the change, it would take effect July 1.

mbatcheldor@theolympian.com

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