Builders, county fire officials disagree on fire codes

BARBARA COTTER Updated: January 10, 2012 at 12:00 am • Published: January 10, 2012

County fire officials and representatives of the local building industry butted heads Tuesday over a fire code requirement that structures larger than 6,000 square feet be built with an automatic sprinkler system.

Caught in the crossfire is the El Paso County board of commissioners, which is being asked to approve the 2009 International Fire Code, as well as several amendments to better address local needs.

What baffled some fire officials who attended a county commission work session Tuesday is that the board, without fanfare, approved the 6,000-square-foot requirement six years ago when it OK’d the 2003 International Fire Code.

“There are no requirements in here that have not been in place since 2006,” said Falcon Fire Chief Trent Harwig.

But building industry representatives said they had no idea the commission was voting on the regulation in 2006, and now want a voice.

“It was snuck under the radar; nobody knew about this and we got hit with this,” said homebuilder Barbara Keller, who said it would cost a homeowner $30,000 to install a sprinkler system in a 13,000-square-foot house. “It’s overreaching, and there should have been a discussion of this ... before it was rammed down our throats.”

The 2003 and 2009 International Fire Codes set a 12,000-square-foot minimum for sprinkler systems, but Harwig and officials from the other eight fire districts outside Colorado Springs city limits say the more stringent local regulation is needed in rural areas because they have fewer fire stations, not as much equipment or manpower, and a greater response time than urban areas. In many cases, there are no hydrants for miles around.

“It really comes down to one thing: our ability to fight a fire,” Harwig said. “Our ability is not the same as the city. We don’t have 21 stations. The code should be amended to meet our ability.”

Keller and Kyle Campbell, past president of the Housing and Building Association of Colorado Springs, told commissioners that better building materials and construction techniques, smoke detectors, the use of firewalls and mitigation steps such as clear-cutting around structures have lessened the need for sprinkler systems. Campbell also suggested that the sprinkler system requirement could be a barrier to business development.

But Harwig said the requirements have not dampened development.

“Look at the rapid growth in Falcon the last five, six years,” he said. “Our amendment hasn’t hurt that.”

It’s not just fire officials who back the 2009 code and the amendments, most of which are minor. The boards of each district OK’d them,  as did the town council in Palmer Lake.

“So essentially, 47 elected directors have already approved the code,” Harwig said.

But county commissioners must approve the code and amendments before the fire districts can implement them, and they made it clear Tuesday that they’re not ready until all parties talk about the issue.

“The fact is, in 2006, there was not a discussion,” said commission chairwoman Amy Lathen said. “We’ve been asked to allow the community to have a discussion, and I believe it is our obligation to foster the discussion.”

And so, it will be. Regional Building Official Henry Yankowski, who spoke against the need for the local amendment, offered to facilitate a meeting between fire officials and building industry representatives.

Before Tuesday’s work session ended, there was an indication they might reach agreement. Keller, for example, suggested that more people would be willing to support the regulation if the 6,000-square-foot rule excludes garages and covered patios, which are now factored into the structure size and can easily push a modest-sized house into sprinkler-system territory.

“I would entertain the thought, but they’ll have to give us something at the same time,” said Curtis Kauffman, fire marshal for Tri-Lakes/Monument Fire Protection District.

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