Bob Schott stood outside of the Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company house and watched a flame climb up a wastebasket full of newspaper and spread to a hanging white curtain.
One minute 11 seconds later a smoke alarm sounded inside the glass-paneled trailer. Seconds later the overhead sprinklers turned on and doused the flames.
Schott, a field marshal with the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute, set the fire as part of a demonstration for the Harford County Council prior to a hearing on a bill that would end a requirement that newly built homes have the systems installed.
As the year-old law stands now, all newly built single-family homes and duplexes built in the county after Jan. 1, 2012, would be required to have the fire suppression systems, according to Harford County legislative liaison Nancy Giorno.
County Executive David Craig, a Republican, is proposing that those requirements be ended. Homebuilders say they support the proposed change to the law because the sprinklers are too costly for homebuyers in an already depressed housing market.
The Maryland State Fire Marshal Office, various county volunteer fire companies and the Department of Fire Protection Engineering support the current law.
“I understand the economic side of all of this,” said Schott. “But, what’s a life worth?”
Inside of a chamber installed with overhead sprinklers, council members listened to firefighters oppose the bill and homebuilders support the bill during the hearing.
“The way homes are built and furnished now, they are petroleum based and burn with extreme rapidity,” said W. Faron Taylor, a retired Maryland state fire marshal in an interview before the hearing. “When there is a fire, there should not just be a smoke alarm to tell us what’s going on, but something to attack the problem.”
Dan Whitehurst of Clark Turner Development said the housing market has declined in Harford County. Sprinkler systems cost $1.40 per square-foot to install but add no value to the home, he said.
“The people who have bought homes from Ryland Homes have chosen not to put sprinklers in,” said Whitehurst.
Tim Hopkins, a real estate broker, said new home construction lags behind the jobs boom at Aberdeen Proving Ground.
“We come here to speak for future home buyers. They aren’t going to know about these fees until they are building that home,” said Hopkins. “Let’s let people make the decision.”
Richard Green, the Maryland State Firemen's Association residential fire sprinkler committee chairman, said the association supports requiring sprinklers in homes. The regulations protect the lives of not just tenants but firefighters, he said.
"When you call 911, you invite the government into your home," said Green.
The public hearing for the sprinkler bill completely overshadowed redrawing the county’s six council districts.
County Council member Mary Ann Lisanti stated that District F, which gained precinct 1-13 Abindon and lost 1-10 Abingdon and 6-05 Aberdeen, is “a very gerrymandered area.” She said the Harford County Board of Elections should look at the balance of districts to avoid political advantages in future elections.
Ultimately, no members of the public testified on the plan. The council unanimously passed it.