The state of sprinklers in Hawaii or why engineers should
By Samuel S. Dannaway, PE,
President, S.S. Dannaway Associates, Inc., Honolulu
On lists of the most ethical and honest professions, you will find that engineers consistently rank very high; usually in the top 10. Nurses typically top these lists.
On April 26, 2012, the Honorable Governor of the State of Hawaii, Neil Abercrombie, signed into law Senate Bill 2387 “Relating to Fire Sprinklers.” The law became effective on July 1, 2012. The text of the entire bill is as follows:
A BILL FOR AN ACT RELATING TO FIRE SPRINKLERS. BE IT ENACTED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF THE STATE OF HAWAII:
SECTION 1. Chapter 46, Hawaii Revised Statutes, is amended by adding a new section to be appropriately designated and to read as follows:
“§46- Fire sprinklers; residences, No county shall require the installation or retrofitting of automatic fire sprinklers or an automatic fire sprinkler system in:
(1) Any new or existing detached one- or two-family dwelling unit in a structure used only for residential purposes; and
(2) Non-residential agricultural and aquacultural buildings and structures located outside an urban area; provided that this section shall not apply to new homes that require a variance from access road or fire fighting water supply requirements.”
SECTION 2. New statutory material is underscored.
SECTION 3. This Act shall take effect on July 1, 2012; provided that on June 30, 2017, this Act shall be repealed.
In spite of strong opposition by all four county fire chiefs and the NFPA, the bill passed, and sprinklers are now illegal in Hawaii, at least in one- and two-family dwellings. Fortunately, the Hawaii fire chiefs and their State Fire Council were able to get the bill modified to allow them to require sprinklers as an alternative to constructing costly water supply and road improvements for new homes located in areas remote from water supplies and roads meeting fire code requirements.
The law is similar to other statewide legislation enacted in Texas, Alabama, Kansas and Arizona. Additionally, as stated in the August 10, 2012 article by Melanie Hicken of Reuters, New Homes Burn Faster, But States Resist Sprinklers, “A dozen (state governments) have forbidden statewide building code councils from including the requirement (for sprinklers in homes) in their guidelines.”
These efforts are the result of a well-funded, nationwide lobbying effort by the home building industry. The industry is using statewide legislation to head off any efforts by local towns, cities and counties to adopt current editions of the International Building Code and International Residential Code, unless the requirements for sprinklers in one- and two-family dwellings are removed.
Now, before I get too far into my diatribe, I will pause to try to understand the home builder perspective. The housing industry, arguably, is still trying to shake itself free from the worst downturn in decades. It is understandable that the industry would be sensitive to perceived increases in their costs. Unfortunately, in Hawaii new sprinkler requirements come on the heels of a 2011 statewide mandate requiring the installation of solar water heating systems in all new homes. We got beaten to the punch by the greenies.
Back to my diatribe. What bugs me about all this is the misinformation contained in the justification that home builders are using to dupe legislators (willing to be duped by the highest bidder) into passing this legislation. Written testimony offered by the Building Industry Association of Hawaii on Feb. 23, 2012 before a Hawaii Senate Committee includes the following gem, “Fire sprinklers have not been proven to enhance the safety of occupants.”
We in the industry know that this is untrue and that sprinklers are saving lives in homes every day. Also, the home builders, while lobbying our highly intelligent legislators, conveniently omit the fact that a major justification for the IRC sprinkler requirement was to allow builders to use increased lightweight building construction materials in home construction. You know, those lightweight products, like I-beams made of two 2 x 4’s connected by a thin web of plywood that fail under the weight of a firefighter seven minutes into a fire exposure.
A report by the International Society of Fire Service Instructors and Eastern Kentucky University’s Fire and Safety Engineering Technology Program, which studied 117 firefighter fatalities between 1996 and 2009, found that lightweight construction was found as a factor in 17 firefighter fatalities occurring in 12 separate fire incidents. Ten of those incidents were in residences. Of note is that the average age of the structures was 12.1 years. This tends to argue against another piece of commonly used homebuilder misinformation as exemplified in the BIA-Hawaii testimony, that “Fire sprinklers in new homes will not make them safe.”
And guess what? These lightweight construction products, in addition to being cheap, are sustainable and green (unless, of course, they are involved in a fire). Sprinklers enable the use of these kinds of products to reduce the cost of home construction. They were used as partial justification to head off efforts from concerned public safety groups, including firefighter unions, to ban the products from residential codes because of their poor performance in fires.
Now the homebuilders and, I need to add, the major trade unions involved, are coordinating a highly successful nationwide campaign to use the government to backdoor the codes so they can have their cake and eat it too. Mind you, the codes are national consensus standards that represent the industry standard of care.
This method of attacking the codes is disturbing and, hopefully, will not become a model for others who cannot get their way through the legitimate standards-making process.
If you look up lists of the most ethical professions, you will find that engineers consistently rank very high on the list, usually in the top 10. That is why engineers should use their voices to present the truth to those in most need of it.
By the way, regarding that list of professions, can you guess the profession that always dwells in the bottom 10 percent?
Samuel S. Dannaway, PE, is a registered fire protection engineer and mechanical engineer with bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Maryland Department of Fire Protection Engineering. He is past president and a Fellow of the Society of Fire Protection Engineers. He is president of S. S. Dannaway Associates Inc., a 15-person fire protection engineering firm with offices in Honolulu and Guam. He can be reached via email at SDannaway@ssdafire.com.