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“It’s never a question of whether a building should be protected by sprinklers, it’s always a question of economics,” says James F. Dalton, a former fire marshal who serves as the NFSA’s director of public fire protection. A tax break for building owners who retrofit with sprinklers would be a huge step in overcoming the argument that sprinklers are too costly. The combination of a shorter depreciation schedule and lower insurance rates would make it economically feasible to eliminate grandfather clauses and push for mandatory retrofits in high-risk occupancies – such as nursing homes, night clubs and restaurants, college dormitories and off-campus housing, high-rise offices, hotels and apartments.
In the present political climate, the estimated loss of $200 million per year in federal tax revenue is a serious obstacle to overcome in convincing Congress to pass the Sprinkler Act. However, it should be pointed out that in addition to saving lives, sprinklers save millions in tax dollars that are lost each year in fires that destroy businesses and deprive people of their jobs. And, there is no way to measure the cost of human lives.
It’s not possible to predict how many property owners will voluntarily decide to retrofit with sprinklers if they are offered a tax break. But the Sprinkler Act would knock out the argument that retrofitting is too expensive. It could be the beginning of the end for those killer grandfather clauses, and for that reason alone it deserves all the support the fire service can muster.
Hal Bruno, a Firehouse® contributing editor, retired as political director for ABC News in Washington and served almost 40 years as a volunteer firefighter. He is a director of the Chevy Chase, MD, Fire Department and chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.