A major safety battle continues to rage between the men who build homes and those tasked with saving them when the unthinkable happens.

Firefighters say indoor residential sprinklers will greatly improve their chances of survival when battling homes erected using “lightweight construction.”

Conversely, contractors say the cost of installing the potentially life saving systems will prevent tens of thousands of Virginians from being able to achieve home ownership.

The estimated cost of the sprinkler system is $1.61 per square foot according to Mike Toalson, CEO of the Virginia Homebuilder’s Association.

“The statistics just don’t bear out the need for it,” said Toalson.

The Cost of Safety

Firefighters who nearly perished in a 2008 blaze in Loudoun County would disagree. A flashover trapped Capt. Micah Kiger and three of his men in a half-million dollar home assembled without a sprinkler system. Temperatures soared above 1,000 degrees around the crew as they fought for their lives.

They were all seriously injured, but managed to escape the inferno that completely destroyed the home on Meadowood Court. One firefighter, however, says he will never return to work.

Robby Dawson, a firefighter representative, says the need is obvious if you understand that new lightweight construction burns remarkably fast.

“(The sprinklers) are not only (critical) in saving lives, but saving property,” said Dawson.

Profits on safety systems are miniscule when compared to luxury building items. Some estimate the cost of sprinklers is roughly the same as granite counter tops — a major issue in the eyes of contractors.

“Profit margins on those nicer amenities are a little bit larger and that’s where they make their money in their business model,” said Toalson. “I don’t blame them for that. That’s just the reality of the situation.”

Five years ago, the International Code Council, which sets minimum safeguards for home construction, voted overwhelmingly in favor of requiring sprinkler systems in new homes.

Hundreds of firefighters flooded the meeting in which the vote was taken, leading the Homebuilder’s Association to say the process had been “hijacked” by firefighters.

Contractors opposed the measure and vowed to fight it with the Commonwealth’s Department of Housing and Community Development.

Their battle was successful as DHCD Board overturned the ICC vote and rejected the requirement.

Overturning Change

This time it was firefighters who were crying foul.

“The balance of the group are either directly or either marginally indirectly associated with the building industry,” Dawson said.

The firefight between the two parties continues today.

Firefight Series

Part 1: Dangerous Battle Raging Between Contractors, Firefighters

Part 2: Lightweight Construction Posing Deadly Risk to Firefighters

Part 3: High Cost of Safety At Heart of Battle Between Firefighters, Contractors

Nearly Fatal Fire in Leesburg

WNEW’s Kevin Patrick contributed to this report. Follow him and WNEW on Twitter.


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