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July 07, 2004

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Publication Date: Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Menlo Park rejects fire-sprinkler law Menlo Park rejects fire-sprinkler law (July 07, 2004)

** Three council members not convinced that sprinklers merit the cost to home and business owners.

By Rebecca Wallace
Almanac Staff Writer

A vivid case can be made for installing fire sprinklers in homes. Saying sprinklers save lives, proponents display images of flames, blackened walls, body bags.

But despite such arguments by fire officials, the Menlo Park City Council has refused to support a proposed law requiring automatic sprinklers in new buildings over a certain size and in many homes being remodeled.

The three council members who declined to back the Menlo Park Fire Protection District's proposal on June 29 weren't questioning the need for fire safety. Rather, they said that after several hearings they still weren't convinced that sprinklers were effective enough to merit the cost to home and business owners.

Mayor Lee Duboc voiced particular concern about a regulation that would have required sprinklers in single-family homes when alterations or additions to a structure exceed 75 percent of its square footage. The added cost could dissuade residents from upgrading their homes -- and that work might have included such fire-safety measures as electrical improvements, she said.

Agreeing, Councilwoman Mickie Winkler added that Menlo Park is "a totally benign area," lacking Oakland Hills-style high winds and narrow winding roads that could make it easier for blazes to rage out of control before firefighters arrive.

Councilman Nicholas Jellins agreed with Ms. Duboc and Ms. Winkler, while Chuck Kinney supported the fire district plan. Paul Collacchi was absent.

The proposed law would also mandate sprinklers in all new buildings over 1,000 square feet. In addition, it would require sprinklers in existing buildings greater than 2,500 square feet, other than single-family homes, when alterations or additions exceed 50 percent of the square footage.

Menlo Park city staff recommended approving the law, but they did not agree with fire district officials' assertion that sprinklers should also be mandated when a new basement of 250 square feet or more is added to a building.

Similar sprinkler ordinances have already been approved by the councils in Atherton and East Palo Alto, cities that are also in the Menlo Park Fire District. Approval by both the city council and the fire district is required for the ordinance to take effect in a city, so the new sprinkler mandates will not apply to Menlo Park.

Currently, sprinklers are required in Menlo Park for all existing buildings over 5,000 square feet when alterations or additions exceed 50 percent of the building's assessed 1984 tax value.

The day after the council vote, a displeased Peter Carpenter, a member of the Menlo Park Fire District board, wrote in an e-mail to other board members that the vote was "a perfect example of the 'body bag' approach to decision making."

He added, "I wonder how many people will have to be seriously injured or killed before the Menlo Park Council reconsiders this ill-advised decision?"

Mr. Carpenter also told the Almanac that he hoped to have the district work on its own to make residents remodeling their homes aware of the need for sprinklers.

Do they work?

Are the sprinklers effective in saving lives? That depends whom you ask.

Michael Lambert, a Menlo Park architect and strident critic of the fire district's plan, says his own monitored home fire-alarm system, which is bundled with a home security system, makes more sense for homeowners.

In an opinion piece in last week's Almanac, Mr. Lambert cited a report from the California state fire marshal that examined structure fires between 1992 and 2002 and concluded that sprinklers "controlled or extinguished (the) fire" only 6.2 percent of the time.

At the June 29 council meeting, he cautioned against encouraging people to take on a "dangerous false sense of security" by putting in sprinklers. He has also accused the fire district of trying to shift the fire-suppression burden onto homeowners.

Menlo Park fire officials, though, take issue with Mr. Lambert's claims, saying the fire marshal's report is based only "on what engine companies perceive and not on actual verified data," according to a city staff report.

Fire Chief Paul Wilson told the council June 29 that a report by the National Fire Protection Association showed the total death rate in fires between 1994 and 1998 was 88 percent lower in properties with sprinklers than those without.

"We should not await the loss of life," he said.

According to the fire district, an average of 31 fires and 3.3 fire-related injuries occurred each year in Menlo Park between 1998 and 2003.

Estimates also vary on the cost of installing sprinklers. The district puts it between $1 and $1.55 a square foot, while Mr. Lambert has said he got cost estimates averaging $3.95 a square foot for his own home.

At the meeting, Fran Dehn, president and CEO of the Menlo Park Chamber of Commerce, also said downtown water mains would need to be upgraded to accommodate a flood of new sprinklers in commercial buildings.

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