INVESTIGATORS: The politics of sprinklers and fire safety

For years, Minnesota home builders and the fire service have been at odds over requiring sprinklers in new homes.

There's a saying in fire safety: "Everything can dry out, nothing can unburn."

A few years ago Bill Finnegan’s Woodbury home went up in flames.

If it had been equipped with fire sprinklers, investigators say flames never would've spread beyond the family room where, apparently, a laptop overheated, igniting a couch.

“The only way I can describe the couch going up was like a dead Christmas tree," said Finnegan.

The entire structure was a lost cause by the time help could arrive.

No people were hurt, but some pets died.

"I’d take water damage any day over my family getting killed or my pets,” said Fire Investigator, Jamie Novak.


For nearly a decade the fire safety community and Minnesota home builders have been in a tug-of-war over the issue of requiring sprinklers in new single family homes.

"Our builders build an incredibly safe house in Minnesota," said Dave Segal from the Twin Cities Builders Association.

It's the petroleum-based materials used to construct new houses and their furnishings that worry safety experts.

The stuff burns fast, as a recent test on sprinklers showed.

In six minutes - about the time it should take for fire crews to respond to a call - a foam mattress fire turns a bedroom into an inferno.

"This fire alone would've been at least a $50,000-100,000 fire," said Novak.

Another room with the same setup is equipped with automatic sprinklers; the sprinkler is activated in under 90 seconds.
It's a myth that all sprinklers in the house go off at the same time.  In reality, it’s just the one nearest to the fire. They react to the heat, not the smoke, and 155 degrees is the trigger point.

Despite the obvious safety benefits, Minnesota home builders have aggressively fought any attempts to make sprinklers mandatory in the state's building code.

"It's a very big frustration because we are playing with peoples’ lives," said Chief George Esbensen, President of the MN State Fire Chiefs Association.


Over a five year period, the Twin Cities Builders Association spent $750,000 on a media blitz, lobbying effort and a court fight to abolish a state code which had required sprinklers in larger new homes.
"It is a lot of money for one issue, and for our folks, this is a significant issue for the industry," said David Segal of the Builders Association of the Twin Cities.

They make the argument that people are not dying in new housing stock with interconnected smoke alarms, and the cost of requiring sprinklers will hurt business.

"There's still a lot of buyers out there that are right on the line in being able to afford a home," said Curt Christensen.

Christensen, a builder and former fire fighter, was literally the poster boy for the industry's well-funded effort to spread the message that sprinklers add "anywhere from $9,000 to $13,000 dollars or more" to the cost of a new home.

When asked if Sean Flaherty of Viking Sprinkler thought there was an attempt to spread misinformation he said yes.

However, Segal disagrees.

 "I don't think so at all. I think the costs that we presented were the legitimate costs that we got quotes on," said Segal.

According to the National Fire Sprinkler Association, the cost to install a system during construction is about one percent of the purchase price. That comes out to $4,000 for a $400,000 home.


But, we didn't hear any numbers like that when a Fox 9 producer visited the Twin Cities Builders’ Parade of Homes.

“How much would it cost for this house?” an undercover producer asked.

“13 grand," answered a representative for the builder.

That’s nearly double what sprinkler experts say you should pay for this $700,000 property.

In another house the producers asked, "Any idea how much those [sprinklers] cost?

“A home this size, about $15,000-$20,000,” said a representative of the builder.

That estimate was for a $1.2 million home. Using the one percent rule, the cost should be about $12,000.

The builders’ cost argument, not the fire services safety concern, is what resonated with lawmakers.

Flaherty said he thinks the builders had success at the Capitol because they had “deeper pockets."
A new law passed this session prohibits the state from requiring sprinkler systems in new two-unit townhouses.

"The whole purpose of this bill is to create more affordable housing," said one lawmaker as they debated the measure.


There's another bill that keeps coming back year to year despite vetoes from the Governor. It would block Minnesota's building code from ever requiring sprinklers in new or existing single family homes.

Senator Dave Senjem of Rochester is a strong opponent of a residential sprinkler mandate.

"I have nothing against fire sprinklers. I just don't believe they're necessary in a residential house,” said Senjem. "The body of evidence suggests that hard-wired smoke detectors are just fine and adequate in terms of personal protection."

Not if you consider these numbers. Over the past 12 years in Minnesota, 20 people have died in fires despite having working, hard-wired smoke alarms in their homes.

The victims were often children or seniors, and some couldn't get out because of mobility issues or impairment.

"[For] 32 years I've seen so many people die and small kids die. It’s like it doesn’t have to happen if you have sprinklers," said Novak.
 There was no debate over this issue when lawmakers approved a budget to refurbish the State Capitol.  

The redo included adding a sprinkler system to protect the historic building and all the people who use it.

Most people don't notice the new addition because the sprinkler heads are hidden behind discs in the ceiling that pop out in case of a fire.

The debate is happening nationally, and so far, only two states now require sprinklers in all new homes: California and Maryland. Maryland is looking at offering tax credits to help homeowners offset the cost.

In Minnesota, homeowners can expect to save anywhere from 5 to 15 percent on homeowner’s insurance with a sprinkler system. On average, that's about a $150 per year.

The Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition provides free information about residential-fire sprinkler protection