Local Legislative efforts against residential fire sprinklers continue, with California and Texas as the latest battlegrounds. In California, the City of Long Beach has exempted older residential high rises and large apartment complexes from a mandate to install fire sprinkler systems. In Texas, Gov. Rick Perry has signed a bill that prohibits municipalities from enacting residential sprinkler ordinances. The Texas law is retroactive to Jan. 1 of this year.

In Texas, the Texas Municipal League and the Texas Association of Fire Chiefs asked Gov. Perry to veto Senate Bill 1410, that prevents a city from having a residential fire-sprinkler ordinance. They lost out to the lobby from homebuilders' group, the Texas Association of Builders.

The Texas law is clearly a misguided preemptive strike against the International Code Council's International Residential Code, the 2009 edition, which will require residential sprinklers in 2011. The Texas building code, however, actually references the 2000 edition of the IRC. Texas Local Government Code states that municipal building codes must reference the IRC as it existed on May 1, 2001.

S.B. 1410 started out as a revision of the plumbing code. It requires that contractors who install multi-purpose residential plumbing and fire sprinkler systems must be licensed plumbing contractors. The contractors have to prove to the Texas State Board of Plumbing Examiners that they have been trained to install residential fire sprinkler systems, pass a test as devised by the board and pay a fee. Contractors would have to renew their licenses every three years.

“Not later than March 1, 2010, the Texas State Board of Plumbing Examiners shall begin administering examinations and issuing multipurpose residential fire protection sprinkler specialist endorsements … .”

But at the behest of the homebuilders' association, the law prohibits local sprinkler mandates, including one passed this year by the town of West University Place.

“Notwithstanding any other provision of state law, after Jan. 1, 2009, a municipality may not enact an ordinance, bylaw, order, building code, or rule requiring the installation of a multipurpose residential fire protection sprinkler system or any other fire sprinkler protection system in a new or existing one or two-family dwelling,” the law reads.

But the law, on the other hand, specifically states that it's ok for a contractor to try to sell a multipurpose system to homeowners.

Several towns in North Texas already have some sort of residential sprinkler requirement for either multi-family housing or large homes, including Farmers Branch, Plano, Allen and Celina.

State Rep. John Otto, Dayton, Texas, authored the anti-sprinkler amendment. Otto said he was trying to protect local control by leaving the fire sprinkler decision in the hands of homeowners.

That elicited an op-ed piece in the Austin American Statesman newspaper from West University Place City Councilman George Boehme; the law kills the town's residential sprinkler ordinance.

“[H]is amendment does the opposite of protecting local control — it assaults local control,” Boehme wrote. “… [T]he state government will take away each municipality's ability to make its own decisions about residential fire sprinklers.”

In California, the Sprinkler Fitters Association of California voiced its concerns in response to worsening budgets and a recent Long Beach City Council ordinance that exempts older residential high rises and large apartment complexes from a mandate to install fire sprinkler systems. Instead, Long Beach adopted an alternative plan requiring an evacuation and fire safety plan, additional smoke alarms and emergency lighting.

While important, those measures don't address the fundamental problem of putting out fires, said Randy Roxson, SFAC's executive director.

“Taking short cuts around sprinkler systems is irresponsible in this day and age — after firefighters themselves, sprinklers are the next best way to combat fires and save lives,” Roxson said. “Dismissing fire sprinkler systems is like ignoring an obvious safety measure like wearing seatbelts while driving.”

Roxson said that municipal expenses for firefighting might decrease because of sprinklers.

“Times are tough, but that is no excuse for cities to ignore public safety and put lives at risk,” said Roxson. “We need to nip this in the bud.“