Ted Elder

Worcester Commissioner Ted Elder noted the county's proposed opt-out clause from state-mandated fire sprinkler regulations would not preclude the option to install automatic fire suppression systems in newly constructed one- and two-family homes.

Seeks support from others on opposition

(May 10, 2019) After receiving conflicting information regarding a proposed opt-out clause from state regulations requiring fire sprinkler systems in newly constructed one- and two-family homes, the Worcester County Commissioners voted unanimously on Tuesday to solicit support for their position from Maryland counties, legislators statewide and Gov. Larry Hogan.

Commissioner Ted Elder expressed strong sentiments to continue lobbying for the exception.

“Certainly, if someone wants to put sprinklers in their home, they always have that right,” he said.

Earlier this year, the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation (DLLR) adopted the 2018 edition of the International Residential Code, effective as of March 25, which now requires all newly constructed single- or two-family homes to have automatic fire sprinkler protection.

During a discussion in late February, Director of Permitting Ed Tudor presented the commissioners with a draft version of a county building permit application and a single-family home residential fire sprinkler waiver form.

Tudor was responding to a proposal from Commissioner Jim Bunting who in January suggested including an opt-out clause for building permits to allow homeowners to decide for themselves whether to install automatic fire sprinkler systems in newly constructed dwellings.

The commissioners voted unanimously at their meeting on Feb. 19 to seek clarification on the proposed opt-out clause from Norman Wang, DLLR building codes administration director.

In their letter, the commissioners argued that although fire sprinklers do prevent deaths and reduce damage to structures, the decision to install the systems in new homes should be private and not state mandated.

The letter also said rural counties such as Worcester have limited public water sources, which would mean the cost of complying with the state mandate would be much higher here than it is in more developed areas of the state, where water-related infrastructure is easier to access.

Also mentioned in the letter was that Worcester’s opt-out clause would not apply to newly constructed two-family dwellings.

In response, Matthew Helminiak, DLLR commissioner of labor and industry, said in a March 25 letter, that all jurisdictions are required to implement and enforce the most current version of state-adopted building code regulations, along with any local amendments.

Helminiak said DLLR is required to adopt the Maryland Building Performance Standards and the International Building Code, which includes the International Energy Conservation Code, all of which are subject to departmental modification.

State building standards are included under the Public Safety Article adopted by the Maryland General Assembly, which Helminiak said, “does not allow or discourage the state to initiate or assume an independent role,” to regulate and enforce building standards for non-state-owned property.

The Public Safety Article also requires jurisdictions inform DLLR of any local amendments to the standards and mandates the department maintain a database of standards and related amendments.

During the discussion this week, Commissioner Jim Bunting said Del. Chris Adams (R-37B) introduced legislation in 2016 that sought local control of fire sprinkler provisions and suggested compiling an issue information packet to share with neighboring rural counties, area legislators and Gov. Hogan.

Commissioner Joe Mitrecic took the sentiment a step further.

“I think we should send it to every county in Maryland,” he said.

Mitrecic, while acknowledging it is never acceptable for anyone to perish in a fire, said state data brings into question if a lack of automatic sprinklers is typically the cause of fatalities.

“If you look at most of these fires, the loss of life was due more to the fact that there were non-operating smoke detectors in the houses,” he said.

Instead of focusing on requiring automatic fire sprinkler systems for new residential construction in Worcester, Mitrecic proposed assuring existing structures, including rental properties, have functional smoke detectors.

“It’s far more important to have smoke detectors in these houses that are never going to have sprinkler systems in this county,” he said.

 Characterizing the sprinkler requirements as “government overreach,” Mitrecic said state officials may be concerned that Worcester could start a trend.

“People are concerned that we are going to get momentum and are going to join with the other counties and there’s going to be push back at the state level,” he said.

In an April 25 letter to the county, State Fire Prevention Committee Chairman C. Daniles Davis Jr. said 2017 data found 84 percent of fire fatalities were in residential structures, with 73 percent in either one- or two-family dwellings.

Davis said although supportive of the sprinkler regulations, Maryland State Fire Marshal Brian Geraci has said his office lacks enforcement authority because the rules are not a requirement of the State Prevention Fire Code.

Davis also noted Maryland’s Public Safety Article prevents the fire marshal from enforcing regulations in residential buildings used by no more than two families.

The letter went on to explain the Fire Prevention Committee discussed the non-compliance issues in both Allegany and Worcester during its meeting on April 18 and voted unanimously to take action to enforce the counties’ compliance, while acknowledging leaving the matter unaddressed would encourage other jurisdictions to follow suit.

On Tuesday, Elder said there has even been a recent push to encourage homeowners to install sprinkler systems in existing structures.

“I would like to see them retrofit their own homes before [a] … new home requirement,” he said.

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