Council Work Session, Aug. 26, 2013 – strengthening fire codes, part I

Homewood City CouncilThe Work Session was called to order at 4:40 to consider changes to the city’s Local Fire Code Ordinance, as requested by Fire Chief John Bresnan. This discussion–which was cut short and postponed until after the budget is approved–revolved around whether to amend the newly re-adopted 2009 International

There are two sides at least to the city's move to adopt the less stringent 2009 International Fire Code.

Business and fire department interests are in conflict over the recent re-adoption of the 2009 International Fire Code–and expiration of the city’s more stringent standards for automatic sprinkling systems.  Will the city re-adopt those measures or let them go?

Fire Code standards with more stringent fire standards, such as they city had required previously. [The council had re-adopted the recently adopted the newer 2009 code with the intent of eliminating those standards.] Some business owners have complained that requirements for furnishing automatic sprinkling systems in buildings over 10,000 square feet is prohibitively expensive. The work session was called to consider options on all sides.

Members present:  Michael Hallman, Britt Thames, Fred Hawkins, Vance Moody, Patrick McClusky, Jenifer Champ Wallis, Heather Reid,  Peter Wright, and council president Bruce Limbaugh.  Entering late was Richard Laws.

Members absent: Walter Jones

Staff present:  Two members of Homewood Fire Department, fire chief John Bresnan, Battalion Chief Rusty McCombs, Jim Wyatt of Building Engineering and Zoning Department, city attorney Mike Kendrick, and city clerk Linda Cook.

Audience attendance:  5

Introduction to options presented by fire chief John Bresnan – Mr. Bresnan said he was proposing five options to amend the code, of which four related to requirements for sprinkler systems. As an introduction, he explained that the city currently has a Class 2 ISO rating, which is the second best rank possible on the insurance industry measure of a city’s fire safety, and which can possibly reduce insurance premiums.  (The city is  also rated by a building code effectiveness rating, which wasn’t known by any staff present at the moment.)  He said the city’s rating was damaged in the past when an exception for sprinkling single family dwellings was written into the residential building code. The chief said his intent was to enhance the safety standards and also the ratings that affect insurance premiums.

1) Require sprinklers for new residential [dormitories, hotels, etc.–NOT single-family dwellings] and commercial construction “when the fire area on any floor exceeds 10,000 square feet, or two floors together equal 15,000 square feet, or when there are three or more floors of any square footage. There was discussion regarding the efficacy and cost of sprinkling building levels, and possible water damage from sprinklers.

2)  Eliminate current options to remove or deactivate existing sprinkler systems.  There was much discussion regarding costs of sprinkler system requirements.  One business owner commented that Homewood was asking businesses to incur a great initial cost due to related requirements for fire alarm monitoring and notification. Mandatory inspections for such systems can cost $1,200-$2000 yearly and the current regulations require notification and status of each tenant space, potentially adding up to $200,000 of expense. Such an expense could discourage businesses from locating in Homewood.

3)  Certain existing buildings should be sprinkled to new construction standards if substantial renovations are made.  The chief distributed a list of buildings, including four large motels that weren’t sprinkled. He said renovation thresholds would be when they involve more than 50% of the building fire area. In a “Level Two” instance, sprinkling would be required for any addition or any area whose floor plan is modified.  A “Level Three” case would require sprinkling if the work area exceeds 50% of the building square footage.  The chief recommended that renovations would accumulate to the 50% mark, as noted by the city inspector, at which point the building would have to be sprinkled as if it were a “Level Three.”  Within each level there were other standards that had to be met, such as occupancy and construction type.

There was some discussion regarding whether the “use” of the building was pertinent to this amendment, with the consensus that the city would use the IFC definition.  Mr. Hawkins suggested the city pay businesses half the cost of upgrading or complying with requirements if the regulations were adopted. Mr. Kendrick said this was beyond the city’s responsibility.

The council and fire chief are sensitive to business – After more discussion regarding the possible effect of the fire code on business investment, and lengthy comments from Mr. Wright regarding the council’s interest in the business owners’ interests, it was decided to continue the discussion at a later time.  Ms. Wallis recommended that the council put the matter off until after the budget was passed (by Oct. 1).

Chief Bresnan assured everyone that his intent was to protect the city with the best regulations that take business interests into account. Questions arose regarding the fire standards of other over-the-mountain cities, and the extent of business input to those standards.  Chief Bresnan said he would research the regulations in surrounding cities and any incentives or cost controls offered by Birmingham Water Works Board.

The council will resume the discussion, including the two remaining proposed amendments, in another work session to be called after Oct. 1..

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