In a national survey of homebuilders and developers, 55% said they would be interested in building homes with fire sprinklers if they were offered incentives, yet only 6% had ever been offered them. The survey was conducted by HanleyWood for the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition (HFSC.)
Trade-ups are locally negotiated incentives that authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs) offer to developers in exchange for improving life safety by installing fire sprinklers. A companion fire-service survey conducted by FireHouse found that less than half of American fire-department personnel know about the incentives. A typical single-family development has on average 50 homes, so it’s easy to see the life-safety promise in this approach.
Ninety-five percent of fire department personnel say they support home sprinklers as a method to increase protection of new houses. Strong support for sprinklers notwithstanding, 92% of respondents work in jurisdictions that do not currently offer any incentives to encourage homebuilders or developers to install fire sprinklers when they build.
The low percentage of incentive offers may be attributed to confusion about fire-sprinkler requirements. The survey showed that 55% of fire-service personnel were not aware that jurisdictions without home fire-sprinkler requirements could offer incentives to builders and developers.
Another factor may be the role AHJs play during the planning process. According to the survey, only 41% of fire departments participate in planning and zoning board meetings. When they do, that participation may come too late, after the pre‑application process.
Incentives a Win-Win in Camas, Washington
With plans to develop a 60-home subdivision along a steep hillside in Camas, Washington, a developer requested approval for a single entrance instead of the two roads that were required. This presented an opportunity to Randy Miller, Camas-Washougal deputy fire marshal. In response, Miller agreed to the single entrance if the developer agreed to install fire sprinklers in all 60 homes.
The developer agreed, and the result was a win-win for Camas, the future homeowners and the developer. According to Miller, a second road would have taken up to six lots. Instead, the lots were used for additional homes and the developer saved an estimated $1 million in infrastructure and material costs. Moreover, all the homes in the development are protected from fire for many generations to come.
While Camas did not have an ordinance or a home fire sprinkler requirement at the time, Miller worked closely with planners, city officials, builder association leaders and developers to educate about the life-saving benefits of home fire sprinklers and the potential trade-ups, or incentives, that can be offered if entire developments are protected. According to Miller, his success was based on educational meetings during the pre-application phase, so that all stakeholders could review the land and discuss the incentives and options.
Today, more than 2,000 Camas homes are protected with fire sprinklers. The incentives developers were able to negotiate include fire hydrants spaced further apart, narrower roads, gated communities, steeper slopes and higher lot yield and higher density. Most important, there have been four successful activations where the home fire sprinklers prevented fires from spreading and becoming deadly.
What Are Incentives?
There are many common incentives that AHJs can offer builders:
- Street-width reduction – Traffic lanes may be narrowed, substantially reducing the amount of pavement in every linear foot of street in the development.
- Longer dead-end streets – Dead-end streets may be increased in length, allowing additional house lots to be built.
- Tee turnarounds permitted – The permitted use of tee turnarounds in sprinklered developments can create at least one additional lot per cul-de-sac.
- Increased street grades and building setbacks – Steeper street grades and building locations are allowed further from where the homes’ access leaves the main road.
- Additional units permitted – Development plans allow homes to be closer together.
- Expansion of existing water supply may not be needed – Required fire flows for fully sprinklered developments can be greatly reduced compared to nonsprinklered developments.
- Increased hydrant spacing – Supply mains may be reduced and hydrant spacing can be increased.
- Subdivision single access point – A fully sprinklered subdivision allows for a single public-access road. This decreases infrastructure costs and significantly increases the number of single-family dwellings allowed.
- Gated communities – Gated communities delay fire-department access. A fully sprinklered subdivision provides mitigation for this impact, allowing developers to utilize this security option when desired.
- Reduced basement windows – Fire sprinklers reduce the number of required rescue openings in every basement sleeping room.
In response to the limited use of home fire-sprinkler incentives, HFSC was awarded a FEMA Fire Prevention & Safety grant to develop 9 Steps to a Safer Community.
This program provides free educational resources that AHJs and other members of the fire service can use to educate all stakeholders involved in the local planning process. These resources include case studies, videos, downloadable presentations, statistics and economic data gleaned from several communities. The information reflects the experience of large and small developments.
The program partners the fire service with builders or developers and has great potential to deploy a local plan that will help protect communities for decades. The key to success in any jurisdiction is early participation by fire officials in the planning process to encourage more developers to take advantage of incentives, resulting in more sprinklered developments.