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Firefight: Profits, Politics Leave Firefighters at Potentially Deadly Disadvantage

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Firefighters and contractors remain locked in what may be a deadly fight over money — specifically, the cost of building a home with potentially life saving features versus the less expensive option of building a home without.

Homebuilders say the cost of installing indoor sprinkler systems in newly manufactured residences will prevent tens of thousands of Virginia residents from becoming home owners. Firefighters say the safety both they and the purchaser gain in return is well worth the estimated $1.61 per square foot price tag, or roughly the same as installing granite counter tops.

Homes built using “lightweight construction” burn at a rate three times faster than older dwellings erected using traditional methods and materials. Firefighters argue such speeds warrant the need for sprinklers.

The systems were made mandatory by the International Code Council in the fall of 2008, but the requirement was rejected in Virginia by the board of the Dept. of Housing and Community Development, due in large part – firefighters argue — to lobbying efforts by the Va. Homebuilder’s Association.

Firefighter Robby Dawson says the two DHCD votes in favor of mandatory systems were cast by the only firefighter representatives on the Governor-appointed board.

“To say that the board is balanced, I don’t think is a fair statement,” said Dawson.

DHCD Deputy Director Emory Rodgers declined to comment on the board’s makeup.

Public records obtained by WNEW reporter Kevin Patrick show political donations from homebuilders in Virginia total nearly 10 times the amount contributed by police and firefighters combined.

Firefighters say they are “light years” behind homebuilders in terms of funding.

Firefighters ‘Light Years’ Behind
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Nationally, the Federal Emergency Management Agency contends the 2,500 annual fire deaths could be dramatically reduced by mandating the systems.

Mike Toalson, CEO of the Virginia Homebuilder’s Association, doesn’t argue that the systems may be effective, but says they should not be made mandatory.

Loudoun County Fire Dept. Capt. Micah Kiger, who was one of four firefighters (three men and one woman) trapped in a nearly fatal 2008 inferno at the center of this battle, doesn’t think most home buyers know they’re purchasing “lightweight construction” when they buy a home.

“I don’t think the folks on the street necessarily have an understanding of what is actually out there,” said Kiger.

Loudoun County Fire Dept. Chief Keith Brower says sprinklers will be cost-prohibitive without a mandate. Outfitting a single home with sprinklers in a new development would be expensive.

“If you had the whole row of houses – there’s an economy of scale there,” Brower said.

They May Not Know What They’re Buying
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Nearby Prince George’s County, Md. made indoor sprinklers a requirement 20 years ago. During that time, officials say 77,000 homes have been constructed.

To date, there have been no fatalities inside those homes – neither residents nor firefighters. In fact, only six minor injuries have been sustained in homes outfitted with sprinklers.

Pr. George’s County Fire Chief Marc Bashoor believes the argument the additional cost will stifle housing market is “ridiculous.”

“$9,000 added to a $500,000 home? I think people can live with that … to know that we’ve had zero fire deaths,” he said.

Sprinkler Homes: 20 Years, 0 Deaths
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The Meadowood Court home that experienced flashover in 2008 was remarkably similar to a house in Prince William County in which an emergency worker was killed just one year earlier. That fire claimed the life of firefighter Kyle Wilson.

Temperatures inside the Meadowood Court home where Captain Micah Kiger’s crew was operating were estimated at more than 1,000 degrees.

“I tried to call a ‘Mayday’ on my radio but my fingers were melting into my lapel microphone,” Kiger recalls. “Every time you moved you were burning.”

Firefighter Mayday Radio Call

Unlike the fatal fire one year earlier, Kiger and his crew were able to escape with their lives, but suffered serious injuries and now carry with them mental scars that will last a lifetime.

Presently, the code remains unchanged in the Commonwealth and homes are continuing to be constructed at a blistering pace, void of a potentially lifesaving investment.

The Fight Continues
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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

Part 4: Profits, Politics Leave Firefighters at Potentially Deadly Disadvantage

Nearly Fatal Fire in Leesburg

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

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