LOUDOUN COUNTY, Va. — Loudoun County Fire Chief Keith Johnson is passionate about fire safety, especially about residential sprinklers.
However, residential sprinklers aren’t required in townhomes and one-and-two family homes in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
If you were to cross the river into D.C. or Maryland, sprinklers are required. And California is the only other state — plus district or territory — in the United States that requires sprinklers.
“The National codes, the International Code Council, who is the model code that Virginia follows does have a requirement for fire sprinklers in one in two-family dwellings, as well as town houses,” Johnson said. “In Virginia, that requirement is removed at the state level, through the board of Housing and Community Development, so there is no current requirement for fire sprinklers in one in two-family dwellings.”
Johnson sits on the State Board of Housing Community Development. He said there was a proposal in 2019 to install fire sprinklers in residential town homes, but it was shot down.
“A lot of times the need is affordable housing. We all want affordable housing, our board of supervisors wants affordable housing, everybody in the Commonwealth wants affordable housing, and often this the reason is that these fire sprinklers will add cost to the home,” Johnson said. “And it does add cost to a home, but as a fire chief and locality in a major metropolitan locality. I want affordable housing, but I want safe, affordable housing. That's very important to me.”
When WUSA9 asked Johnson if people were safer living in Maryland or D.C. he said, “I would say they're safer in homes that have residential sprinkles, absolutely.” He said it’s a scary thought to not have sprinklers in your home.
“Your risk of dying in a fire is 80 percent less by having residential sprinklers, so we know we can save lives,” Johnson said. “It's kind of like seat belts in cars, smoke alarms back in the 70s in homes. We want that same protection for residential sprinklers because we know we can save lives. Property loss goes down by an average of 71 percent in homes that have protection by automatic sprinklers.”
Prince George’s County required all homes have sprinklers in 1992, and fire officials said there hasn’t been a single fatality in a home with a sprinkler system since then.
WUSA9 asked Virginia Home Builders Association VP of Government Relations Andrews Clark why he didn’t think sprinklers were necessary for every Virginia home.
“Over the last many years that the code development process has been underway and in Virginia, I think, both the fire services folks in the building industry and building officials have found really effective means of mitigating and reducing the likeliness of fires in single family homes and other types of structures,” Clark said.
Clark said there are a lot of variables associated with sprinklers, such as the topography of homes, condition of the site, and balancing cost and affordable housing.
“The cost is cheap, the National Fire Protection Association estimates $1.61 per square foot of your home,” Johnson said. “It's often touted through us it's cheaper than buying granite countertops in your home to have that protection for you and your family.”
Clark said the number of fires in Virginia have gone down, attributing this to new building technologies that have been effective.
“I think, in Virginia, the data would suggest that over the last 20-30 years, there's been significant improvements and the safety of our single-family homes and other types of residential structures,” Clark said. “It doesn't always boil down to cost, it's how do we manage and balance the need for housing affordability, which is a real challenge here in Virginia.”
He also said this is a sensitive subject, and progress can only be made through extensive conversations and dialogue.
Johnson agrees the total number of fires has gone down in Virginia, but added that the total property loss has gone up.
“We're seeing a reduction in the number of fires nationwide, but the damage, because they burn hotter and faster, we're seeing bigger fires, like what we saw yesterday in Fairfax County. Now granted, that was a fire under construction, but what we see is a rapid advancement of fire,” Johnson said.
Johnson said the construction materials used, lightweight construction as it’s called, burn faster and hotter.
“Today the lightweight construction, and the amount of synthetic materials in our home, they burn hotter, they burn faster,” Johnson said. “Where typically when we went into a fire we would have 12 to 15 minutes to operate to go search put the fire out today, we're talking three to five minutes at the most [now] before the risk of collapse on the firefighters that are entering or not being able to get to the people in that home is greater.”