Highland Park City Council members are considering a proposal that would require new residential homes built in the city to include indoor sprinkler systems to control house fires.
Some argue the sprinkler systems would save lives, while others say the costs outweigh the benefits. Depending on the size of the house, a sprinkler system can cost around $10,000.
Highland Park Fire Chief Patrick Tanner put forth the ordinance proposal.
"It is my job as a fire chief to protect the lives and properties of the citizens in Highland Park," Tanner said, noting that 68 other communities in the Chicagoland area have a similar ordinance.
According to Tanner, there has not been a fire fatality in Highland Park in about 20 years. On average, there are about 10 residential fires in Highland Park annually.
From 2001 to 2007, there were 88 fires in Highland Park, according to a slide show presented by Tanner at the last City Council meeting. Twelve of the fires were in buildings with sprinkler systems, and there were no deaths or injuries. The other 76 fires were in structures without sprinkler systems. There weren't any deaths, but eight civilians and five firefighters were injured.
Opponents to the proposal point out that 42,000 people die every year in traffic accidents, while 4,000 people die annually in residential home fires.
Nationally, 90 firefighters died while on duty in 2009, according to a U.S. Fire Administration report. About 14 percent of those deaths were due to firefighters getting caught or trapped in burning houses.
"This is a situation of misdirected resources," said Howard Handler, who is the government affairs director for the Northshore-Barrington Association of Realtors. " It's like using sledgehammer when a hammer will do."
Fire fatalities have been significantly reduced by smoke detectors, which range in price from $10 to $100.
"These systems are absolutely not necessary," said Eric Barton, graduate master builder with Biltmore Homes Inc. "The sprinklers are a very expensive solution to a problem that does not exist."
Industry representatives heavily push home sprinkler systems, Barton said. Forcing homebuilders to install these systems in newer homes is even less practical because most house fires occur in older homes, he added, because newer homes are built with better electrical systems.
Tanner pointed out that most fires occur, in part, because of negligence of residents, such as unattended candles or still-lit cigarettes, and sprinklers can save lives in these situations.
Last Monday, Tanner presented the city council with studies done in Scottsdale, Ariz., and Prince George's County, Md. These studies found significantly lower fatality rates and reduced property damage rates in homes equipped with sprinkler systems.
Neither study mentions whether working smoke detectors were present in the homes with fire fatalities, and both studies were partly sponsored by the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition. Either way, the data supports the use of home sprinkler systems, Tanner said.
About fiveyears ago, Elgin city officials did away with a similar proposal that would have required all new houses to have the indoor sprinkler systems.
"The data didn't support the expense," said Elgin Mayor Edward Schock.
The added cost should be the homeowners' decision, Schock added, noting that in these difficult economic times, the affordability of the systems is an important decision for buyers.
During that decision, Elgin city officials cited residential fire studies and statistics. From 1990 to 1999, there were three residential fire fatalities in Kane County. The fatalities were citizens, all of whom were in older homes with non-working smoke detectors, Schock said.
In 2002, Glen Ellyn implemented a similar sprinkler ordinance. Although there was concern at first, the implementation of the ordinance seems to be going smoothly, said Staci Hulseberg, director of planning and development for the Village of Glen Ellyn.
"People have come to understand that this is part of the regulations," Hulseberg said.
Illinois is one of a handful of states that does not have a statewide building code. Most municipalities in the state use the international building code, but decide independently what to require in buildings.
Highland Park City Councilman Steve Mandel said that because the information is new to them, no decisions or opinions have been made. About two years ago, the council did discuss a similar proposal, and no action was taken.