This is long and complicated, but important. Tonight, the Anchorage Assembly will make some very big decisions that will impact land and housing development in Anchorage for years to come. For such a high stakes vote, there has been little public conversation about the pros and cons of, for instance, requiring sprinklers in most new homes built on the Anchorage hillside beginning in 2021.
Wait, what? This is the first you’ve heard about a mandate for residential fire sprinklers? Let me tell you how we got here.
Every 3 years, a complex national process updates model building codes. Local jurisdictions then modify these codes and adopt them with adjustments that fit local environmental demands and community priorities. Anchorage updates our building codes every other code cycle, or every 6 years. The last code cycle we adopted was the 2012 codes, the Anchorage Assembly is currently working on adoption of a localized version of the 2018 model code.
When the Anchorage Home Builder’s reviewed AO 2020-85 (which repeals the 2012 codes and adopts the 2018 codes) there was a confusing piece about adding a fourth option for satisfying an already ambiguous fire water requirement.
The fire water “requirement” in question says that if your proposed home is not within 600 feet of a fire hydrant, you need to install a new hydrant or build to a special set of fire prevention codes. One thing that makes the current situation so confusing is that the 2012 codes – on paper – are even worse for new homeowners than the current version.
The catch is, they’ve never been enforced.
The current codes were either adopted on accident or for some other reason were not applied (or acknowledged/waived) for years. Builders believed the requirement intentionally didn’t apply to residential construction, because those permits have not traditionally been routed for fire review, and prior to the 2012 code had been officially exempted from the requirement.
Recently, a handful of new subdivisions (which, unlike permits for constructing a single home, have always been routed for review by the fire department) have had sprinkler requirements attached to the subdivision plats as an uncodified means of satisfying the fire water requirements. If not for that, even the home builders likely would not have grasped what the Administration is trying to pull off right now.
We have confirmed that what is being proposed by the Administration is to add sprinklers as an official fourth option for meeting the fire water requirement, and then begin applying the requirement to all homes built more than 600 ft from an existing fire hydrant.
This is a huge change that would affect a majority of the available residential land in the Municipality, including a smattering of infill development in older parts of Anchorage (like Spenard), most of the Anchorage hillside, Eagle River, Eklutna, and Girdwood.
Simply put, there has been insufficient public conversation for such a major change. Although fire safety is unquestionably important, Anchorage homebuyers should have at least some say in whether an industrial-style sprinkler system is really the best use of their next 30 grand. Especially if their homes are within, say, 700 feet of a hydrant (instead of the magic 600).
The truth is, new homes are already very safe, and by making them substantially more expensive, this proposal in the name of public health and safety would have exactly the opposite effect. This is an expensive solution that does a poor job addressing the real problems facing Anchorage residents.
The Assembly is currently scheduled to vote on the administration’s proposed language on October 27th, we hope people will talk about the pros and cons a lot more before then.
The Case Against Sprinkler Requirements in Anchorage
First, let’s look at the motivation for this change. Nationally, as this Administration has been quick to point out, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has successfully lobbied to have sprinkler requirements for all one- and two-family homes included in the model code.
However, sprinkler requirements have not been popular in practice. In fact, only two states (California and Maryland) have adopted the requirements our Building Official refers to as “national best practices”, while two more (New York and Massachusetts) have partial requirements. On the other hand, the other 46 states have chosen not to adopt that portion of the model code, and about half of those have explicitly forbidden local jurisdictions from adopting sprinkler mandates, even though they are normally allowed to adopt more stringent requirements than the state.
Alaska has not forbidden local jurisdictions from adopting sprinkler requirements, but our legislature did mandate communities wishing to require sprinklers in ALL new homes must first engage in a fairly extensive public outreach process. Unfortunately, that public notice requirement has not been complied with in this process because the Anchorage proposal would only apply to many new homes, not ALL of them.
In Anchorage, Municipal officials have argued that new homes burn especially fast due to open floorplans, and because of the move away from solid wood building. The truth, however, is that new homes are drastically safer due to a variety of code-required improvements to the materials and methods we use to build modern homes.
But don’t just take our word for it, since 1980, the US has gone from 60 million single family homes and duplexes to 90 million. During the same period, the average annual number of fire deaths has been cut nearly in half – from 4,200 to 2,200.
New homes are not only built to be more fire safe, the #1 protective factor for when home fires do occur is fire alarms. While sprinklers do reduce the risk of death, the effect is extremely marginal when compared to functioning fire alarms, which in new homes because they are wired in, have proven to be substantially more reliable than battery powered units.
As mentioned above, new homes are simply not the source of fire-related deaths in Anchorage.
By making new housing more expensive, the proposed requirement will extend reliance on more dangerous existing housing. Anchorage has already seen the average cost of a new home increase by $245,000 above the rate of inflation between 2000-2019, driven in part by a significant jump in cost after the new Title 21 was implemented; adding another $25,000 requirement is about double the average annual cost increase, which was already deeply unsustainable.
Finally, adding to the local case against sprinklers is Anchorage’s earthquake risk. The administration has testified to the assembly that they have no knowledge of risks due to earthquakes causing water damage from sprinklers. However, in 2019 the Anchorage Daily News reported:
“After the  earthquake, one of the most costly problems that emerged was water damage. Among the factors: More than 200 sprinkler systems in buildings broke, causing flooding.
It took about two months for contractors to repair the sprinkler systems, said Bart Meinhardt, fire inspector with the Anchorage Fire Department.”
Clearly it is something we should be aware of and concerned about.
So what do other places do? Many states and communities with sprinkler requirements have exempted areas outside of municipal water service. This is because if you can’t plug your sprinkler system into municipal water, you have to have either a strong pump with a really good well, or more frequently have large onsite water tanks that cost money, take up space (that you are paying to build) and complicate the system adding to lifetime expense.
Given that most jurisdictions have rejected sprinkler requirements (whether or not they are an earthquake risk), when the average cost of a sprinkler system nationally is just $6,000, it is hard to see how anything but extreme circumstances could justify mandating systems that cost 4-5x that in Anchorage.
What Circumstances do we Need to Address?
The primary motivator for this code requirement according to the Municipality is the health and safety of Anchorage residents. I have already pointed out that 47% of Anchorage’s deadly home fires in recent years have come from mobile homes, so you may be shocked to learn that according to the municipal property inventory, less than 3,000 of Anchorage’s nearly 350,000 housing units are mobile homes. Less than 1% of our housing accounts for approximately half of our fire deaths. Sprinkler requirements wouldn’t apply to them, and so wouldn’t help the portion of our housing clearly in the greatest need.
The remainder of fire deaths have occurred in homes at least 30 years old which have been clearly demonstrated to be far greater fire risks than modern homes (despite the administration’s testimony regarding the unique risks of modern homes and their open floorplans).
If the Municipality really wanted to enforce rules that would reduce the health and safety risks of fires on Anchorage residents, they wouldn’t be requiring new homes on Anchorage’s periphery to install sprinkler systems (which require annual inspections for the entire lifetime of the home). Instead, they might start applying annual inspections to mobile home fire alarms, for instance. Such action would represent an evidence-based approach – and be a low-cost intervention that would help real Anchorage residents facing the greatest risk of harm.
Instead of a low cost fix that addresses a significant portion of the risk, however, the Administration’s proposal is to make it $20,000-$30,000 more expensive to build new homes. New homes which help Anchorage as a whole upgrade and modernize our aging housing stock (70% of which was built in the 1980s and before). Next to fire alarms, updating our housing stock is the most evidence-based means of reducing life/safety fire risks.
Perhaps you are sympathetic to the Administration’s perspective that mobile home residents can’t afford fire alarm inspections, but new home buyers can afford sprinkler systems and mandatory annual inspections of those systems. This ignores how our housing market actually works.
Every time our new home sales prices have jumped, whether that was driven by running out of land or the new Title 21 requirements, the cost of old homes jumps too. This is because new homes are a replacement good for a used home (and vice versa). If someone thinking of buying a new home is scared off by the fact that their new home will be appraised 20k below their purchase price due to sprinkler requirements; they may choose to buy an existing home that they can purchase at the appraised value. The larger number of home buyers that result compete for the limited number of homes on the market, and prices on existing homes go up. Whether or not wealthy home buyers COULD afford sprinkler systems, imposing the requirement WILL increase the cost of housing throughout Anchorage’s housing market.
If Not Health and Safety, Then Why?
The Administration’s main response to this question has been that it is a requirement under Alaska State law. Their reasoning is that, like Anchorage, the state has adopted the 2012 International Fire Code (IFC). Local jurisdictions are allowed to adopt more stringent codes than the state, but not more lax codes. Therefore, if Anchorage reduced or exempted new homes in Anchorage, it would be a violation of state law.
Anchorage officials have had to ignore a couple of obvious truths to come to this conclusion.
First, no jurisdiction in Alaska, whether the State is administering the IFC or a local government has taken over the responsibility, actually enforces this fire water requirement. So, if Anchorage would be in violation, then so would the rest of the State, and nothing has ever come of it.
Second, despite no concerns expressed by the State regarding our ongoing non-enforcement of this requirement, rather than consulting with State officials regarding the requirement, the Anchorage administration has taken it on itself to do this on the justification that the State SHOULD or COULD be requiring it, even though they quite obviously aren’t/won’t/don’t want to and couldn’t even if they did. (An answer the Administration could have obtained before attempting to impose this requirement, but then they couldn’t have used it as an argument in favor of the requirement.)
Third, the State of Alaska Department of Public Safety is the entity which adopted the International Fire Code in Alaska, and which is cited by Anchorage officials as the authority that requires the fire water requirement in Anchorage. However, if you look at the regulations being cited by the Municipality (13 AAC 50.025) you will find that the Department of Public Safety in turn cites the source of it’s regulatory authority (AS 18.70.080). This authority for the Department to adopt regulations specifically carves out one-, two-, and three-dwelling unit residential structures as outside of the department’s regulatory authority. Not only has no evidence been provided suggesting the State of Alaska ever intended on imposing this requirement, it is quite obviously not within their power to do so. Facts haven’t stopped the City of Anchorage from promising/threatening to issue “at-risk” work permits if the assembly rejects the expansion of the fire water requirement into small residential construction.
The Anchorage Assembly will be voting on all of these building codes tonight; and special for this meeting, have changed the deadline for public participation over the phone from 2pm the day of the meeting to 5pm the night before. So if you want to be heard on this, you’ll have to write the assembly or come to the meeting in person.
Several community councils representing areas without comprehensive fire hydrant coverage have expressed their opposition to this “fire water”/sprinkler requirement. The assembly members who represent the districts where this would have the most impact are opposed. But Administration Officials continue to press assembly members whose districts would be only rarely impacted by the requirement to impose it over the objections of those it would apply to.
One thing we agree with the Administration on is that the status quo state of having the fire water requirement on the books but unenforced is a bad practice.
The Anchorage Home Builders Association believes we should change code to reflect long standing practice, rather than making our presently unenforced code slightly more reasonable (while repeatedly testifying that the only thing that is changing is an additional option for flexibility) and then suddenly after it has passed also beginning to enforce the code (as the administration eventually admitted is their intent).
Please do some research, engage with the topic, and contact your assembly person to let them know what you think about sprinkler requirements (they are eager to stress it is just an option, but if it is the lowest cost option, it seems well on its way to requirement status) being added to homes built more than 600 feet from a fire hydrant.
If the administration thought this was something the people of Anchorage wanted, they would have admitted from the outset that the goal was to begin enforcing a new requirement.
Instead it has taken literally months for even the experts to grasp that was what is being proposed, so tightly have they clung to the fiction that the only thing going on is an increase to flexibility.
As you can see from the following response to the Chugiak-Eagle River Advisory Board’s concern with the sprinkler language, not all city officials are content with the requirement as proposed and would prefer to follow California and Maryland’s example implementing sprinkler requirements on ALL new homes. You can also see that while everything they say is technically true, key facts are omitted; such as a vast majority of states having rejected this very same ‘national best practice’, and the ‘existing code requirements’ haven’t been enforced.
“AO2020-85 does not create a mandatory requirement for sprinklers in new residential construction. Although the International Code Council model residential code does create such a mandate, the Title 23 update does not follow the national best practice and continues the Anchorage approach of placing additional risk on the building occupants of residential construction. Specifically, the proposed code provision offers an automatic sprinkler system as an option to address existing code requirements reflected in Section 507.1 of the 2012 International Fire Code which is currently adopted by the Municipality of Anchorage.”
– Robert Doehl, Building Official and Director, Development Services Department
and Brian Dean, Anchorage Fire Marshall
September 23, 2020
This issue deserves a public conversation. A conversation where the public understands what’s actually going on.
Eric Visser is the owner of Visser Construction and President of the Anchorage Home Builders Association.