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Fire sprinklers proposed for all new homes

Medford might become the first city in Oregon to require fire sprinklers in all new residential construction to prevent unnecessary deaths and injuries.

"We can't put a price on a child," Mayor Gary Wheeler said.

Wheeler and the City Council received a recommendation from Fire Marshal Greg Kleinberg, who said a fire sprinkler system could add $1.68 a square foot to new construction, or $3,360 to a 2,000-square-foot house.

Kleinberg said competition typically drives down the price of sprinklers after several years in communities. The national average price for sprinkler installations is $1.35 per square foot, he said.

Over the lifetime of a 30-year loan, Kleinberg said the cost of sprinklers would amount to one Happy Meal or a couple of drinks at Starbucks each month.

Based on research and anecdotal evidence, smoke detectors are not always effective because they don't always awaken small children or residents disable the units.

In newer construction, flammable materials can completely overwhelm a house with fire and smoke within minutes. Sometimes new floor joists, which are made of lighter materials, will burn through quicker than those in older homes, Kleinberg said.

"We've had firefighters enter the front door and fall through the floor," he said.

Also, most houses include highly flammable furniture such as sofas, beds and TV sets.

"We're packing our houses full of fuel," Kleinberg said.

In side-by-side demonstrations, the fire department concluded that a newer house could get out of control within about three minutes compared to older houses that might take as long as 17 minutes.

Over the past 25 years, Medford has had 22 fire-related deaths. Kleinberg said that based on his analysis, 17 of those deaths would have been preventable with fire sprinklers. Over the past five years, the city of Medford has averaged 82 fires a year, with the majority one and two family residential.

Kleinberg said it's important to note that there are no cities in Oregon that require fire sprinklers in new residential, but it they are required in California.

Councilors thought the city should look at ways to offset some of the costs of installing the fire sprinkler systems. Councilor Dick Gordon said he wondered whether the issue should be put to voters to decide.

The councilors urged Kleinberg to reach out to local builders and real estate agencies to gauge their response to a mandatory fire sprinkler ordinance.

"To make every single homeowner have a fire sprinkler, whether he wants it or not, we don't think it's a good idea," said Brad Bennington, executive officer for the Jackson County Homebuilders Association.

He said he thinks that most fires are not taking place in newer construction. "Our experience is the older homes have the problems," he said. "Many homes today are extremely safe. The construction in a modern home is night-and-day compared to an older home."

Bennington said his not-for-profit organization's goal is to provide safe, comfortable and affordable housing.

In some cases, he said a fire sprinkler system might be appropriate for properties that are located far from fire hydrants or don't have easy access off long driveways.

"We think technology is a great idea for people who want it and can afford it," he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com. Follow on Twitter at @reporterdm.