Politics & Government

Tie vote squelches bill to ease fire sprinkler rules

TOPEKA — A battle between firefighters and builders in the state House went to the firefighters on a tie vote Wednesday.

At issue was House Bill 2515, which would have banned cities and counties from requiring fire sprinklers in residential buildings of four units or less.

The bill was strongly supported by the state associations for Realtors, builders and mobile home manufacturers. It was just as strongly opposed by firefighter groups and associations of cities and counties.

Rep. Bill Otto, R-LeRoy, carried the bill on the House floor. He said it wouldn't stop anyone from installing sprinklers if they want them.

"What it does do is say government cannot tell you you have to do it, because a man's home is his castle," Otto said.

Supporters also noted that requiring sprinklers would add thousands to the cost of a house, which they said could hold back construction and economic recovery.

Noting that some cities such as Lenexa and Parsons have already passed sprinkler requirements for triplexes and quadplexes, Otto proposed an amendment to take those types of buildings out of the bill. The amendment failed.

Opposing the bill, Rep. Ann Mah, D-Topeka, argued that the issue was "home rule or state rule?"

She said building codes are the responsibility of local governments and should stay that way. In addition, she said the "evidence is overwhelming, sprinklers save lives."

When the representatives voted, an audible gasp went up when the results flashed 59-59 with seven not voting. The tie vote killed the bill, giving the firefighters and their supporters the win.

Ron Ewing of the state Firefighters Association said he was surprised by the vote.

"We actually thought it would pass the House and we'd have to chase it in the Senate," Ewing said.

He said the bill is important to firefighters for their own safety, as well as the safety of building occupants.

A trend is emerging to require fire sprinklers in new construction because of increased use of lightweight and composite materials in houses, he said.

Older houses could burn for about 20 minutes before starting to collapse, while the newer, lighter structures have only about a five-minute "burn time," Ewing said.