New Paltz Village Fire Chief Cory Wirthmann, who also works as a fire and building inspector for the municipality, shared his views on residential fire sprinklers at the January 9 joint meeting of town and village boards. A law requiring them in new construction is now under consideration, and Wirthmann would also like to see them added to rental buildings when significant renovations are made.
Having sprinklers “doesn’t take [firefighters’] place,” the chief explained; rather, they increase the chance that residents will get out safely before help even arrives. Reducing rescues saves lives not only of those residents, but also potentially of firefighters themselves. On the other hand, since modern sprinklers also trigger alarms when activated, Wirthmann anticipates that more calls would actually result.
Building sprinklers are activated by heat, and only pump out enough water to make those safe exits possible. More is used in the hallways and near entrances, but it’s not necessarily enough to extinguish the fire. “We come in and finish the job,” Wirthmann said.
Already required in commercial buildings, the cost of adding sprinklers is now considered affordable enough to be mandated where people sleep. Presumably that calculation has been based on purely economic factors; the chief noted that “it’s hard to value human life” regardless of the cost. With current technology it wouldn’t even result in visible pipes and sockets to add them to new or existing buildings, and with insurance premium reductions the cost would be offset over time with those savings.
In the village core, and other portions of the town with higher population density, there is a high level of student occupancy, as students are not all required to live on campus. Wirthmann pointed out that student housing in particular is a concern because landlords generally don’t live on-site and may not even live in the community. Trustee William Wheeler Murray, himself a firefighter, is hopeful that in addition to new construction, owners of existing rental properties might eventually be required to add sprinklers.
According to Wirthmann, such a requirement might be triggered by renovations of 50% or more, for example. The cost of such retrofitting is no longer prohibitive, he noted. Such determinations are made by building inspectors, not property owners. Council members and trustees would have to decide on the precise threshold. The existing village rental registry — which may soon be mirrored in the remainder of the town — could be used to identify the rental units.
Supervisor Neil Bettez made it clear he is in favor of requiring sprinklers, saying that it is in keeping with a town building code which is based upon safety. Deputy Mayor KT Tobin liked using a 50% threshold, as it’s already a trigger for other safety measures in state code, such as hardwired smoke detectors.