Ordinance would require fire sprinkler systems in new residential construction

Camas City Council will vote on the issue April 4

A proposed ordinance would require that fire sprinkler systems be installed in all newly constructed one- and two-family residential dwellings, and town homes constructed in Camas.

If approved by the City Council during its April 4 meeting, the new rule would apply only to new construction and would not require the retrofitting of any existing dwellings. Exempt from the law would be mobile homes and manufactured homes.

According to city officials, even without this ordinance in place Camas already has one of the highest rates in the state of fire sprinkler installation in new residential construction.

“We manage to get fire sprinklers installed mandatorily in almost all new construction because of our fire code,” said Fire Chief Nick Swinhart during the March 7 City Council workshop. “It has to do with certain things like access to water, access and egress to fire vehicles and road width.”

Right now there are approximately 2,000 homes in Camas equipped with residential sprinkler systems.

“It wouldn’t be a major change for us. We already get sprinklers installed in over 90 percent of new construction anyway,” Swinhart explained. “It would be a very small change. But it would be really cool, as far as I’m concerned, to get our names on the list with cities like Olympia and some of the bigger ones up north in King County that have had ordinances like this on the books for several years.”

In addition to Olympia, other Washington cities with fire sprinkler ordinances include Bonney Lake, DuPont, Kenmore, Redmond and Tukwila.

Fire Marshal Ron Schumacher told the City Council during its planning retreat in January that he believes fire sprinklers far exceed any other measure of fire prevention that currently exists.

“Smoke detectors are great. We all have them and they are required,” he said. “But you always hear about the batteries being gone, [and about people who] died in the fire because the didn’t have working smoke detectors. That doesn’t happen with fire sprinklers. They are there 100 percent of the time.”

Schumacher said the benefits of fire sprinklers include saving lives and property, and also reducing injuries to firefighters.

According to the Fire Protection Research Foundation, a 2013 study found that the average cost of a residential fire sprinkler system is $1.35 per square foot. In Camas, Schumacher said, the cost ranges from $1.25 to $1.50 per square foot.

This is not the first time an ordinance that proposed requiring residential fire sprinkler systems has been presented to the City Council for discussion.

In April 2003, a similar initiative failed to earn support by the majority of the City Council. Instead, the elected leaders favored promoting the education of builders, realtors and consumers about the benefits of residential fire sprinkler systems.

City Council eliminates fire impact fee incentive

The City Council recently approved an amendment to its municipal code, so that the city will no longer provide a complete fire impact fee waiver for homes and duplexes constructed with fire sprinklers. The incentive had been in place since 2002.

“Today, over 90 percent of the homes or duplexes that come in are required to have sprinklers because of the fire code, because of width of streets, proximity of fire hydrants, ingress and egress,” said City Administrator Pete Capell. “So it’s not necessarily gaining us anything to have this fee waiver.”

According to Capell, if the city had been collecting a 16 cents per square foot fire impact fee on new residential construction for the past three years it would have brought in approximately $290,000.

The new ordinance, effective as of Feb. 1, eliminates the waiver except for those homes and duplexes that are not required by the National Fire Protection Association Code 13D to install residential fire sprinklers, but volunteer to do so.

Builders of homes and duplexes that are required to install fire sprinklers by NFPA Code 13D, will pay 80 percent of the fee because state statute requires them to pay based on the percentage of total calls that are medical only, since fire sprinklers do reduce house fires.

In Camas, approximately 80 percent of calls are medical and 20 percent are fire related.

“This proposed amendment will still waive fire impact fees for voluntary installation, keeping the incentive intact for the very small number of homeowners who have the option to choose sprinkler installation,” Swinhart said in a memo to the City Council. “For the other 90 percent that are required to install sprinklers, the proposed change will bring in a much-needed increase in fee revenue that the department can use to purchase new fire trucks, or even to assist in building new stations that will be required to support our continued population growth.”

Camas Mayor Scott Higgins was a member of the City Council when the incentive was first implemented. At the time, builders were not often willing to step up and install fire sprinklers voluntarily, and officials with the city’s fire marshal’s office were looking for ways to change that.

“It was a really great example of how an incentive can produce what you want,” Higgins said. “That being said, so much has changed in the 12 years since that it does seem like it’s the right time to take at least part of that away so that we can make sure that we are doing proper planning for our capital items like fire engines.”