When firefighters arrived at 625 Forrest Street in Harrisburg, they could do little more than prevent the fire from spreading beyond several row homes on Monday night. By the time, they made entry, a handful of people were near death, among them four young children: Later, all were pronounced dead at local hospitals: Making it among the deadliest fires in the city.
This stark tragedy comes at a time lawmakers are still butting heads over the merits of mandating the installation of automatic sprinkler systems in all new home construction. Before the senate adjourned last week, it passed an amendment to (H.B. 1196), designed to delay the requirement for another year.
The Pennsylvania Homebuilders Association has fought tooth and nail in and out of the courtroom and the halls of the Capitol to kill the legislation. The PBA proffers that mandatory sprinklers will drive up the cost of construction by thousands of dollars –when the industry is flailing in the fragile wind of a poor economy. Another argument rests with personal choice. Like granite counter tops, deciding whether or not to install a sprinkler should be left up to a homeowner.
“Most tragic fires are in older homes with no working smoke detectors. If this was truly about saving lives than they would mandate sprinklers for every home,” said Melissa Etshied, a spokesperson for the PBA.
The Homebuilders Association has given more than $1,035,670* to lawmakers over the past seven years. Of that, $333,250 ended up in the pockets of Democrats. The rest of the pie, $702,420 is earmarked for Republican Senators such as Jake Corman (R-34). Corman introduced the delay measure; he also worked for the PBA in the early 1990’s.
Why put the bill off another year ,when lawmakers have talked about it for at least 20 years? Senator Corman told RocktheCapital, “Do we as a Commonwealth want a code enforcing sprinklers throughout our state. Another year will give us the time to walk through it and with a new administration.”
Don Konkle, executive director of the Pennsylvania Fire and Emergency Services Institute puts it this way, “They [PBA] say this ought to be a personal choice and not mandated by government. But, personal choice ends when you dial 911, and you ask a firefighter to fall through a brand new house built with like-wood construction, into a burning basement and die.”
From 2006 to 2008, 2,635 people across the U.S. were killed in 3600 house fires, and, according to the U.S Fire Administration, it caused nearly $200 million in property loss.
Konkle, a former fire chief, is aware of only two instances where people died in buildings equipped with sprinklers. Konkle says a man living in a high-rise tower lit himself on fire and an elderly woman fell out of a chair after her down-coat caught on fire.
If the bill remains in the Senate, the amendment will die, and the sprinkler requirement will begin on January 1, 2011. But, if representatives return to the House before January (and RTC is hearing rumblings that will happen) – there is a reasonable chance they will place the senate’s amended version on the floor for a vote.
Firefighters were on the scene of the Forrest Street fire in three minutes, and even that was not quick enough. The house had smoke detectors, but Chuck Ardo, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office says they were not working.
“The number of pieces of equipment that responded to the fire was amazing,” said Ardo.
Ardo says the preliminary cause of the fire is a space heater.
A mandatory sprinkler law could not have saved 49 year old Corneilia Brooks or Deorrion, Deandre, Tysheen Terry, and Kelli Franklin — all were between the ages of 2 and 4 – because it is only for new construction.
Mark Singel, a former Lieutenant Governor, and for a brief period acting governor told RocktheCapital that, “it is unconscionable that the builders continue to put profits ahead of public safety. This is exactly the kind of tragedy that could be averted in the future with sprinklers.”
*Campaign donations figures obtained from followthemoney.org
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