YES to sprinkler systems for Worcester 3 deckers and buildings with 3 – 6 units! They save lives!

By Ron O’Clair

In a “white” paper released in May by the state Board of Building Regulations and Standards it was recommended to drop the existing Building Code Requirement to install sprinkler systems in buildings with 3-6 units when property owners decide to make improvements to the property, and that improvement reaches a threshold of 50% of asset value or higher.

That as far as I can determine from the sources I contacted for this story is the “trigger” that requires a property owner to install a sprinkler system in any building that does not have one that contains 3-6 units of housing.

This move to drop the requirement is being touted as a way to increase the amounts of affordable housing in Massachusetts.

Sprinkler systems cost anywhere from $15,000 – $30,000 for installation in existing 3 floor buildings, depending on whether or not a new water main has to be brought in from the street according to whether or not there is sufficient water pressure to support the new installation.

One developer I contacted for this story paid $15,000 alone for the new water main needed to sustain a sprinkler system due to the distance from the street, which determines overall cost of the water main installation.

Proponents of keeping the existing law in place such as William Breault of the Main South Alliance of Public Safety see the issue one way, and many developers see the issue another.

This author feels that from a safety standpoint, absolutely requiring sprinkler installation during renovations would help prevent death and injury to occupants in the event of a fire.

Many of Worcester’s old three decker houses have antiquated electrical systems that were designed for far less of a load then they currently use. Air conditioners, huge flat screen televisions, computers, refrigerators etc. all draw a large amount of electricity from the existing wiring. What originally was designed for three families at the time of installation has become outpaced by modern convenience, and what is happening in some cases is that landlords are renting out rooms individually to maximize profits, each of whom will then have their own refrigerators, air conditioners, televisions, etc. – placing an overload on the existing electrical system, which can result in a fire.

I remember a case of that happening on Providence Street, #75 I believe it was, when someone on the third floor received a huge power hungry flat screen television for Christmas, plugged it in to an already overtaxed electrical system, and caused the house to catch fire. I don’t recall there being any deaths or injury, but there certainly could have been.

What price do you put on a human life?
Would installation of sprinkler systems help to save lives?

One developer was quoted as saying: “Smoke detectors save lives, sprinklers save buildings”

In my own experience here at the building in Main South I have been responsible for as the Building and Property Superintendent, one of the former tenants, Kevin C. who was in room #1 at the time, came home inebriated and fell asleep on his bed with a lit cigarette. Lucky for him, he was under the sprinkler head, as he slept through the wailing smoke detector, and it was only when the sprinkler head had activated and the water started flowing that he was able to wake up and realize that he was about to die.

In that particular case, absolutely the sprinkler system saved his life. It also saved the building, as the fire was contained and did not spread out of control.

Should the requirement be modified, or eliminated in an attempt to increase availability of affordable housing?

Kevin C. owes his life to the fact that sprinklers were installed in the rooming house he then occupied. Had he resided in a place without them he would have undoubtedly perished in the fire he himself started in his drunken condition.

Like it or not, that was certainly a case of the sprinkler system saving his life.
Safety must come first, above any other consideration. It will certainly not increase the amount of affordable housing if left in place, as costs incurred by property owners ultimately are factored into the amount they charge for rent, but I must ask again, how much is a human life worth in dollars and cents?