Avon to require installation of automatic sprinklers on all new residential developments | VailDaily.com

Avon to require installation of automatic sprinklers on all new residential developments

Safety benefits to residents and first responders win out over concerns about increased costs

A 2019 study conducted by the National Fire Protection Association showed that sprinklers reduce fire ground injuries by 80%.
Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition/Courtesy photo

The Avon Town Council approved the adoption of a new building code on Tuesday that will require all new single-family, duplex and townhomes developed in Avon to install automatic sprinkler systems for fire suppression.

Automatic sprinkler systems have been a requirement of the International Residential Code since 2009, but Avon has historically repealed the section due to concerns about increased construction costs. 

The contentious decision split the council, passing 4-3, with those in favor saying that the safety benefits for residents and first responders are worth the price and those against saying that the increased development costs will add yet another barrier to developing affordable housing in town.

Town council member Scott Prince was one of the three votes against the motion, along with Chico Thuon and Lindsay Hardy. Mayor Sarah Smith Hymes and council members Amy Phillips, Tamra Underwood and Russell “RJ” Andrade voted for it.

The current code only requires residential buildings of over 6,000 square feet to have automatic sprinklers, but representatives from the fire department advocated strongly for universal sprinkling for residences of all sizes.

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Mick Woodworth, the fire marshal for the Eagle River Fire Protection District, emphasized that with the rise of wildfire risk in the West, universal sprinkling is becoming a mainstream strategy for mitigation.

“We’re community risk management, and if we want to manage the risk in our community, the No. 1 thing is fires — the way we manage that in a home is fire sprinklers,” Woodworth said during a Nov. 8 public hearing. “California is 100% fire sprinkled residential now, Nevada is on their way to that, Las Vegas has been doing it for years. That’s just the direction that the fire service is going.”

In addition to better protecting homes, sprinklers have been shown to be highly effective in protecting firefighters on duty. Rob Geislinger, a representative from the National Fire Sprinkler Association, shared that a 2019 study conducted by the National Fire Protection Association showed that sprinklers reduce fire ground injuries by 80%. The study also showed that by helping to slow and contain the burn, sprinkled homes produce 90% less carcinogens during the firefighting process than non-sprinkled homes.

Geislinger said that cancer has been the leading cause of death for firefighters since 2002, accounting for two-thirds of all deaths and that reducing the amount and time of exposure to carcinogens can be life-saving for firefighters in the long term.

While the life-saving benefits of automatic sprinkler systems are well-established, Avon’s hesitancy to adopt the code in the past was due to the additional financial and logistical burden it would place on local developers. The estimated cost of a system, as quoted in the information packet, ranged from $10,000 to $12,000 for a 1,500-square-foot home and $55,000 for a 6,000-square-foot home.

Sean Reynolds, a developer and property manager at Vail Management Company, said the cost of installing these systems was of great concern, especially when factoring in the fluctuating price of materials with inflation and the added difficulty of getting certified people to do the job.

“When I talk to the different contractors, they’re strapped. They can’t get anything done right now, they don’t have any help,” Reynolds said. “That also translates to higher costs when we go to do this, because they’re already busy, not to mention we’re in the mountains so costs already go up. It’s very pricey up here, and it is something that when we get into trying to build affordable housing, it’s one of those things that will add costs to it.”

Prince echoed these concerns in his dissenting opinion.

“The reality is we’re not seeing homes built in an affordable or attainable price point today, and requiring this for all square footage homes is just going to further the unaffordability,” Prince said. “Homeowners, builders, certainly if they want to include sprinklers they can, but to put a mandate out there is not the right path to go.”

In an attempt to avoid the impact on affordable housing development, Town Council members considered modifying the sprinkler code so that it would only apply to homes of a certain size, but the idea was seen by many as the wrong approach.

“If we have a cut-off point, do we tell these people at 4,000 or 2,000 or 3,000 (square feet) that their lives are more valuable than those people who are in smaller homes?” said Derek Place, Avon’s building official. “To me, that’s almost discriminatory, to say I’m sorry, you people that can’t afford a big house don’t get the protection that your neighbors do.”

In the end, the safety benefits won out and the new code will go into effect 30 days after approval of the ordinance.

“I understand the costs and all that, but when it comes down to the safety of our first responders and the residents, I think we owe it to them to approve (the code) with the sprinklers,” said Council member RJ Andrade. “If one life can be saved, or two, I think we, unfortunately, have to do it. I hate the added expenses, but I’d hate sitting here memorializing two firefighters because we didn’t do this.”

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