Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening proposed yesterday that automatic fire sprinkler systems be installed by 1991 in all new commercial and residential buildings, including single-family houses.
Glendening's proposal would make Prince George's the first jurisdiction in Maryland and in the Washington area to include detached, single-family houses among buildings that would be required to have sprinklers installed during construction. Glendening will send the legislation to the County Council for introduction next week.
The installation of the systems would add about $1,700 to the cost of a new house, county government officials and home builders said yesterday. The actual cost to install the system would be about $3,000, they said, but the net cost would be reduced by easing other building-safety standards.
To head off a major source of opposition, Glendening included representatives of home builder organizations on a task force appointed to study his proposal before it was unveiled yesterday. Even so, home builders remained cool to a requirement for sprinklers in single-family dwellings, warning that the added costs could hurt sales of moderately priced houses.
"Obviously, when you approach an area as controversial as this, you need the cooperation of the building industry," Glendening said at a news conference yesterday. "I expect positive action on this bill by the beginning of next year with probably a few minor amendments from industry."
Miles Haber, senior vice president of Oxford Development Corp., said the building industry generally supports the installation of sprinkler systems in apartment buildings, where changes in building standards more easily offset the cost. But he said the industry is less committed to the requirement in single-family, detached houses.
Glendening said he believed that including industry representatives on the task force should curb some opposition from home builders, who have opposed similar legislation in Harford County and in other jurisdictions across the country. The county executive also said that phasing in the requirements would lessen industry opposition.
Glendening's proposal comes during a housing boom in the county, with town house and single-family dwellings sprouting up in all areas of Prince George's.
Other jurisdictions have enacted or proposed legislation requiring sprinkler systems in some buildings. Harford County's proposal, for example, would require the systems to be installed in commercial buildings and multifamily housing but not in single-family houses. Montgomery County passed a bill last year that requires sprinkler systems in town houses and multifamily buildings.
Harford County Council member Robert Hooper, sponsor of the bill there, said his proposal stops short of including single-family houses because he feared it would increase already heavy opposition from the home building industry.
But Glendening said statistics on fire fatalities in Prince George's County convinced him that single-family houses should be included in his proposal.
From 1976 until yesterday, according to statistics compiled by the county Fire Department, 137 people died in fires in Prince George's. Of those deaths, 64 percent occurred in single-family houses. Twenty-nine percent occurred in apartments and 7 percent took place in town houses.
The task force report concluded that 75 percent of the people who died in those fires could have been saved if their residences had been equipped with automatic sprinkler systems. "The key is that it saves lives," Glendening said.
The requirements of the bill, which has two sponsors on the County Council, would be phased in over three years. New multifamily dwellings, hotels and motels built after June 30 next year would have to be equipped with sprinkler systems. The bill would require the systems in town houses constructed after Dec. 31, 1988, and in single-family, detached houses built after Dec. 31, 1990.
The new residential sprinkler system would show only about a two-inch flat, metal disk almost flush with the ceiling or about a half-inch metal sprinkler head on wall models. In most cases, two sprinkler heads would be needed in each room.
The county executive said that having a sprinkler system could reduce the cost of insurance premiums by 25 percent. But Hooper of Harford County and an insurance industry official said the savings would be closer to about 15 percent.