Rockford Homebuilders, State Fire Marshal at Odds Over Sprinklers

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Automated sprinklers would become mandatory for new home construction in Illinois if a proposal from the state fire marshal is approved.

Illinois State Fire Marshal Larry Matkaitis said mandatory sprinklers are a common-sense way to continue the reduction in fire deaths and injuries of recent years. Opponents, including homebuilders, say the proposed rule is an expensive intrusion on consumer and local-government choice.

Dennis Sweeney, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of the Greater Rockford Area, said his association en masse is opposed to the sprinkler mandate.

"It's a solution to a problem that doesn't exist," Sweeney said. "The building codes on new homes already is very strict. You can check anywhere. New homes rarely burn down. It's the older homes with old wiring and no fire blocking that burn down."
Matkaitis said it has been more than a decade since the fire code was updated in Illinois.

Fire deaths across the state totaled 120 in 2012, and there were more than 500 injuries, according to the office. More than 61,000 fire calls were made statewide last year, and more than 15,000 had been reported through July 5 this year.

Springfield fire calls totaled more than 16,100 in 2012 and a little more than 7,900 through July 5 this year.

Matkaitis said modern home-building materials are more lightweight and prone to collapse before firefighters arrive. Sprinklers, said Matkaitis, would buy homeowners and firefighters time.

"It will either put the fire out right away, or knock it down to the point when firefighters get there, all they have to do is come out with a hand pump," Matkaitis said. "It minimizes fire damage, smoke damage and lung damage."

The National Fire Protection Association also is urging state and local governments to adopt mandatory sprinkler rules.

But Gary Oehlberg, owner of Oehlberg Construction Company of Loves Park and president of the Home Builders Association of the Greater Rockford Area, said the cost of the systems remains too high, and that cost would get passed on to every buyer, hurting an industry that still has not recovered from the Great Recession.

There are significant disagreements on the cost. The fire marshal's office puts the estimate at $1.69 per square foot. Builders say the figure is closer to $3.50 and could be has high as $8.50 per square foot.

Oehlberg builds custom homes, meaning his customers have the means to add sprinklers if they wanted to. In 38 years, he can't remember installing any locally.

"You're far more likely to have your pipes freeze in the winter than for a sprinkler system to actually stop a fire," Oehlberg said. "It costs $18,000 to $25,000 to put a system in one of the homes we usually build. No one wants to spend that money."

Locally, the issue came up in 2008 when Belvidere Fire Chief Dave Worrell pushed requiring new homes to have sprinklers in Belvidere. The city council voted it down.

Matkaitis called opponents' claims of thousands of dollars in added construction costs "outrageous." He noted that 90 communities in Illinois, and the states of Maryland and California, have adopted sprinkler mandates.

"They're (opponents) not realizing this is going to save lives and save property, period," Matkaitis said.

The fire marshal plans to submit the proposal to the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules as a change to the state fire-safety code. The 12-member, non-partisan committee reviews implementation of state laws and regulations.

Opponents, including JCAR member Rep. David Leitch, say the fire marshal's office is trying to circumvent the Legislature with an unneeded, unpopular mandate.

Matkaitis said fire-code changes traditionally have been handled by JCAR.

"The last fire code adopted in 2001 was done by JCAR," Matkaitis said. "This is the process we've always utilized."

JCAR Executive Director Vicki Thomas said commission members would have 45 days to review the sprinkler rule once the final version is filed and could ask for a 45-day extension.

GateHouse Media Illinois Reporters Tim Landis and Jason Nevel contributed to this report.

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