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Public hearing set on proposal requiring sprinkler systems

Fire sprinkler systems would be required in new apartment or condominium buildings of three or more units under a proposal by the state Commerce Department.

Fire sprinkler systems would be required in new apartment or condominium buildings of three or more units under a proposal by the state Commerce Department.

Firefighters say requiring sprinkler systems in smaller buildings would save lives and limit fire damage. But builders say the systems are costly and unnecessary because of other fire-prevention features in newer buildings.

Sprinkler systems currently are required in multifamily buildings of more than 20 units. The proposal to reduce the number of units requires legislative approval.

A public hearing on the proposal will be at 9:30 a.m. Thursday at the Commerce Department, 201 W. Washington Ave. Written comments, submitted by Jan. 5, can be submitted to Jim Quast at jquast@commerce.state.wi.us .

The department estimates sprinkler systems cost less than $2,000 for a housing unit of less than 1,000 square feet.

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"Sprinklers can delay fire, if not put it out," said department spokesman Tony Hozeny. "We believe it's a good way to improve public safety.

Dave Bloom, town of Madison fire chief, supports the proposal and said sprinkler systems reduce fire deaths and increase safety for firefighters.

"It controls the fire until we get there," he said.

"It's like having a firefighter sitting in every room of the building."

Bloom said owners of buildings with sprinkler systems can save on insurance costs. Widespread installation of sprinklers also could reduce fire calls and save taxpayer money by reducing the need for firefighters and stations, he said.

But Jerry Deschane, deputy executive vice president of the Wisconsin Builders Association, said sprinklers are not needed because modern construction practices have enhanced fire safety through fire walls, hard-wired smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors.

He said a committee of firefighters, builders and building owners should study the issue for six months to determine whether existing measures are sufficient in smaller buildings and whether sprinklers are needed.

Deschane said many fire deaths occur in older buildings, which wouldn't be covered by the proposal.

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"The building code's primary purpose is safety -- nobody questions that," he said. "Let's take a look at what's been done and what effect it's had."

Requiring sprinklers in smaller multifamily buildings would add about 5 percent to the construction cost and make housing less affordable, said Chad Wuebben, president of the Madison Area Builders Association.

He said the Commerce proposal also would require sprinkler systems in attics, which is a challenge in states like Wisconsin with cold climates.

If Wisconsin adopts the proposal, it would join 23 other states that require sprinkler systems in new buildings of more than two units.

Several Wisconsin municipalities have such a requirement, including Appleton, Shorewood Hills, West Allis and Muskego.

-- Copyright (c) 2006, The Wisconsin State Journal/Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information

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