It's official, the battle over fire sprinkler systems in all new residential construction is over. The Office of the State Fire Marshal placed a notice on their website Friday, August 2nd stating that their hearing was cancelled for Tuesday, August 6, and that, after considerable public input, "it's become clear that any proposed state rule needs additional refinement."
The knockout blow came in a letter sent from Senate President John Cullerton to State Fire Marshal Larry Matkaitis last week stating that the proposal was "unnecessary, unreasonable, and it represents an inappropriate extension of the rulemaking authority granted to you in the Fire Investigation Act."
President Cullerton went on to state that he would take the atypical approach of advising all three Senate Democratic members on the Joint Committee of Administrative Rules (JCAR) to vote NO on its consideration. He also stated he would request the other three legislative leaders, House Speaker Michael Madigan, House Republican Leader Tom Cross, and Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno to do likewise with their appointees to JCAR.
Had the State Fire Marshal carried on with his proposal, a vote on the mandate at JCAR could have occurred sometime around the end of September. By sending his proposal to JCAR instead of the Illinois General Assembly for consideration, he was avoiding a lot of public scrutiny and legislative debate that goes with a modern democracy. By going to JCAR, he needed only 5 of 12 votes by a body of government that few citizens in Illinois know about or understand their part of the administrative rule process.
The proponents for mandatory sprinklers were big, but the opposition turned out to be much bigger. The Illinois Fire Fighters Association, the Fire Chiefs Association, the National Fire Protection Association, the Plumbers & Pipefitters, the Fire Sprinkler Manufacturers and Contractors were all on point to push the administrative rule through JCAR.
However, the opposition grew in leaps and bounds because the language contained much more than just sprinkler systems in all new single and two family homes. Multi-family high rises built before 1975 would have been mandated to retrofit; a process much more costly than placing in the home at time of construction.
Also affected by the proposal were public structures that were big enough to hold 70 people or more. From churches to taverns, from the city of Chicago to the Illinois Farm Bureau, and with the Home Builders, Realtors, and the Illinois Municipal League leading the charge, the State Fire Marshal picked a fight with a lot of constituencies with his winner take all approach. Also poised for opposition were other groups like the Retail Merchants, the Public Housing Association, and the Illinois Council of Code Administrators.
Public opposition grew quickly as the media started reporting on the impact of the rulemaking. State legislators in Chicago holding their regular "town hall meetings" over the summer months found they had "standing room only" forums whereby most people in the room were there to voice their opposition to the sprinkler mandate.
The Governor's office, who had originally given the State Fire Marshal the green light to go forward with the proposal, was quickly gathering that public opinion was strongly in favor of consumer choice, not state mandates. Within one day of receiving President Cullerton's blistering letter, the decision to pull the plug on fire sprinklers had been made and the rulemaking was taken from the table.
Thus ended a fight between the Home Builders and the Fire Marshal that began almost two years ago with a meeting we had with him in his office in Springfield. In that meeting, we were told a number of things about the home building industry that I was utterly stunned to hear. For instance, the housing recession was good for consumers because now all of the bad builders were gone and only the good ones were left. Or this one; the mandate would be good for builders because they could raise the price of their homes and make more money on them.
So now what?
First of all, we need to thank some people for helping us defeat the fire sprinkler mandate. I want to thank my leadership for all they put into this effort. We started a fire sprinkler fund early and raised $11,000 that was used to purchase polling services, advertising and media consulting, and expert advice on implementing our plan of attack. The National Association of Home Builders contributed an additional $5000 to the fire sprinkler fund and their building codes and standards department was there assisting us every time we asked for help.
I want to thank every member of the Home Builders that sent a letter to JCAR, the OSFM, and to the legislative members on JCAR letting them know in their own words, how bad the fire sprinkler mandate was and that we should follow the lead of 40 other states that had already said NO to fire sprinkler systems in all new homes.
Some of you were interviewed by the media, I want to thank you for having the courage to step up and publically denounce the fire sprinkler proposal. Others of you met with groups who may not have even known they had a stake in this, and encouraged them to join the fight against excessive government intervention. In short, congratulations to our association, our industry, and our associates for prevailing over the fire sprinkler mandate.
What Have We Learned? The Value of Membership
There is a lot to be learned from this latest battle to protect new home ownership from the constant outside attack from those who have no care or concern for home ownership. First, we learned that one man and five legislators are capable of doing an end-run on our state's democracy. JCAR is a dangerous and mysterious process that can catch any industry off guard with regulations that can be far more threatening than any proposal introduced in the General Assembly.
Second, we learned that when things are at their worst, this association is at its best. HBAI Senior Officers, local executives, and regular membership came to the guard of the industry in ways we've never seen before. Meetings with legislative members, solicitation for funds, coalition building, and grassroots letter writing was at an all-time high for this association.
Most importantly we learned of the value of membership. The resources derived from NAHB, the lead taken by HBAI to keep single family homes in the forefront of the debate, and the local associations who brought this issue to a local level for everyone to understand, is what made our efforts a success.
Any entity that would attempt to duplicate our efforts would do so only with far more funds spent and far less ground gained. Your investment into your business through the Home Builders umbrella of representation is much more efficient and effective than if we were to attempt to accomplish such goals on an independent basis.
Let's take the next step.
Please take time to now write an email letter to the members of JCAR thanking them for their position on this matter. It's impossible to exaggerate the devastation this rulemaking would have caused us, and with little or no increases in public safety; especially in new homes equipped with wired smoke detectors. And while thanking them, ask them to consider legislation that would require full legislative approval by the Illinois General Assembly and the Governor of Illinois when the imposition of mandatory fire sprinklers is considered in the future. Now is the time we set forth on this mission.
The Members and Email addresses of those legislators serving on the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules:
Senator Don Harmon
Rep. Tim Schmitz
Senator Pam Althoff
Senator Tony Munoz
Senator Sue Rezin
Senator Dale Righter
Senator Ira Silverstein
Rep. Greg Harris
Rep. Lou Lang
Rep. David Leitch
Rep. Don Moffitt
Rep. Andre Thapedi