Town considers expanding home sprinkler mandate

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Gorham Fire Chief Robert Lefebvre makes a plea last week to strengthen the town’s sprinkler system ordinance to include all new homes.

Maine Fire Marshal Joe Thomas, left, and Gorham Fire Inspector Chuck Jarrett provide statistical information last week at a Town Council workshop about requiring all new homes in Gorham be equipped with sprinklers.

GORHAM — A stronger home fire sprinkler ordinance appeared to find favor during a public workshop last week, but only minus a requirement for lockboxes to allow firefighters access to house keys.

A proposed ordinance amendment would require sprinklers in all new one- and two-family homes in Gorham along with some existing houses undergoing extensive renovation. But a requirement for outside lockboxes with door keys sparked some opposition.

“I’d rather have someone break my windows than have a key out front,” Town Councilor Paul Smith said in last week’s three-hour workshop.

Town Councilor Ronald Shepard suggested leaving the lockbox provision in the proposed amendment as an option for homeowners.

The proposed sprinkler ordinance amendment will be on the board’s regular monthly meeting agenda at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 7, at the municipal center, 75 South St.

“The original amended ordinance that the council tabled in May will be on their August agenda where it is expected that the council will forward it to the Ordinance Committee for the changes discussed at the workshop,” Town Manager Ephrem Paraschak said Tuesday. “When the ordinance comes out of committee and goes back to the council it will have a public hearing before any possible adoption.”

No public comment was allowed at last week’s workshop.

But, called to the podium by Town Council Vice Chairwoman Sherrie Benner,  Keith Nicely, a Realtor, said a sprinkler system would raise the cost of a home $8,000-$10,000.

“I don’t think it has to be decided overnight,” Nicely said about the proposed sprinkler amendment.

Homes in subdivisions are required now to have sprinklers if they are  not served by an approved fire pond or public hydrants. Homes in developments on some long, dead end roads are also required to have sprinklers. New homes not located in subdivisions are not required now to meet the town’s ordinance.

Gorham has 261 homes with sprinklers, according to the Fire Department.

Sprinklers could be required in kitchens, bathrooms and even large closets. Last week’s workshop discussion included whether garages should have sprinkler systems. Fire Chief Robert Lefebvre said garage piping could contain anti-freeze for systems installed in unheated garages.

Speaking at the workshop, State Fire Marshal Joe Thomas said garage fires can be started by automobiles.

A stronger sprinkler ordinance, proponents say, promotes home safety and douses the need to dramatically increase the future number of additional firefighters in the growing town.

Escape time from a burning home in earlier days was 17 to 20 minutes, Lefebvre said, but with today’s modern furnishings, escape time from when a fire ignites is reduced to three to five minutes.

“Our response time in Gorham is six to eight minutes,” Lefebvre said about firefighters and apparatus arriving on scene.

A sprinkler system would activate in one minute, he said.

“If approved, we’re putting a fully staffed fire truck in each home with a one-minute response time at zero cost to taxpayers,”  Lefebvre said.

Sprinklers require an annual inspection that could be performed by homeowners who pass a certification course. A professional inspection would likely run $125,  or $80 each if combined with a group, an industry spokesman said.

Lefebvre said sprinklers would reduce injuries, protect the town’s firefighters, reduce homeowners insurance costs, and eliminate need for potential new fire stations in town. “What we’re talking about is long-range planning,” he said.

In a February workshop, Lefebvre said Portland and Rockland require new homes to have sprinklers.

Westbrook rescinded a similar ordinance in 2012. Westbrook Mayor Mike Sanphy, a former city councilor, said Tuesday he “fought” requiring sprinklers in new homes. Sanphy, retired police sergeant and a retired 20-year  firefighter, said Lefebvre has “his points,” but Sanphy believes homeowners should be allowed to make their own decisions.

Sanphy’s opposition includes potential water damage from sprinkler leaks and sprinklers activating in homes with fully-charged electrical systems. “It’s costly,” Sanphy said about sprinklers, “and I think it’s dangerous.”

“It shouldn’t be forced down throats,” Sanphy said. “This is America.”

Robert Lowell can be reached at 854-2577 or rlowell@keepmecurrent.com.