Committee-approved bill repeals local sprinkler ordinances

Despite an emotional plea from Knoxville’s fire marshal, a state Senate committee has approved legislation that will repeal all local government ordinances that now require sprinkler systems in townhomes built to house three or more residences.

“We know that fire sprinklers save lives. Yet here we are talking about relaxing the code on a proven method of saving lives,” Knoxville Fire Department Assistant Chief Danny Beeler told the Senate Commerce Committee on Tuesday.

Beeler recounted his personal experience — “I’ve seen too many bodies,” he said at one point, voice cracking — as a firefighter and as an investigator of more than 60 fire deaths over a 27-year career.

The most recent, he said, was a young man who died on Valentine’s Day this year, just short of his 18th birthday, who would probably have been saved if his apartment “not so much unlike townhomes we’re talking about today” had sprinklers.

“Please don’t take an action that will put (people)… in greater danger,” he said.

The sponsor of SB474, Republican Sen. Mike Bell of Riceville, said allowing cities and counties to impose a requirement for sprinklers increases the cost of building multi-resident homes and puts Tennessee home builders at a “competitive disadvantage” with contractors in border states that do not, including Alabama, North Carolina, Mississippi, Kentucky and Georgia.

Bell said he has been a volunteer fireman for 20 years and appreciates the passion and professional commitment Beeler expressed, but that the bill — especially after an amendment that was adopted — represents a “reasonable step.”

“You can be a firefighter, albeit a volunteer firefighter, and have a different view on this,” Bell said.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration opposed the bill in its original form, but Bell announced to the committee that the objections — voiced by the state Department of Commerce and Insurance, which includes the state Fire Marshal’s office — have been dropped because of the amendment.

The amendment says that, after the bill becomes law, local governments can re-enact an ordinance requiring sprinklers but only by a two-thirds vote of a city council or county commission. As originally drafted, all local ordinances would have been repealed with no option for bringing them back.

The effect of the bill with the compromise amendment would be to void all ordinances now in effect — including Knoxville’s — but to allow local governments where the idea has strong support to revive the ordinances.

As amended, the bill — pushed by the Homebuilders Association of Tennessee — was approved by the committee on a 7-1 vote. The sole “no” vote came from Sen. Ken Yager, R-Kingston. Sen. Reginald Tate, D-Memphis, abstained.

Beeler was one of four firefighters appearing before the committee and prepared to testify against the bill, even in the amended format. Dan Johnson, Farragut’s fire marshal, was among them. Only Beeler was allowed to testify by Chairman Jack Johnson, R-Franklin.

Jeff Burkhart of Clarksville led a delegation of homebuilder representatives who were prepared to testify in support of the measure. Burkhart told the committee that, recognizing time constraints, the homebuilders were available to answer any questions members had, but would not go into details of reasons for supporting the measure. The committee posed no questions.

State law now generally forbids local governments from requiring sprinklers in single-family or two-family dwellings, but authorizes local governments to require them in housing for three or more residences. A “grandfather clause” declares the sprinkler requirements cannot be imposed on buildings constructed before an ordinance was adopted, so many older buildings are not covered — only new construction.

Disclosures filed with the state Registry of Election Finance show the homebuilders’ political action committee donated $26,500 to legislative candidates last year — including $1,000 each to Bell and Yager. Disclosures filed with the Tennessee Ethics Commission show the association also spent between $200,000 and $300,000 on lobbying the Legislature last year.