Communities Challenge Fire Protection

June 30, 2006
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CASCADETOWNSHIP — Many of the region's most luxurious housing markets exist in areas with little or no fire protection infrastructure. 

One month ago today, a $1.25 million, 7,000-square-foot home at

1405 Ballybunion Court SE
burned to the ground.

As fire protection goes, this situation could not have been worse.  The Insurance Service Office issues Public Protection Classification ratings based upon the ability of a fire department to extinguish a fire in a given area. The city of Grand Rapids, for instance, with its vast water supply and multitude of fully staffed fire stations, has the region's best rating, Class 3. The near suburbs of Grandville, Kentwood, Rockford, East Grand Rapids and parts of Ada and Cascade all have a Class 5.

Ballybunion Court
is a Class 9.

There are no fire hydrants in this gated community, so 100,000 gallons of water had to be trucked in to fight the fire. Firefighters also pumped water from a neighbor's pool. Firefighters from a dozen departments responded to fight the blaze, which smoldered for 30 minutes before neighbors noticed the flames.

Large parts of Alpine, Algoma, Cannon, Cascade, Gaines, Solon and Park townships, as well as much of Walker and other outlying West Michigan areas, are Protection Class 9 or 10. These classes — which suggest total loss if a fire occurs — command steep insurance premiums: at least 40 percent higher than a similar home in a Class 3 area.

Yet, these areas are the most popular sites to build a luxury home.

"There is a lot of money out there," said Cascade Fire Department Inspector Dean Korhorn. "The people who build these homes want to be isolated and left alone, but still be urban enough that their kids have someone to play with, and they can get to the schools they want and aren't too far away from the city.

"But what they forget about is fire protection."

As Korhorn explained, people will gladly pay a premium for this lifestyle. They will also pay a premium to make up for a lack of police protection with gated communities and alarm systems. Usually, alarm systems will alert emergency responders to a fire and even remind homeowners to change batteries in smoke detectors.

"People think that covers them," he said. "But what happens when you're on a private drive and the fire trucks can't even get there? People don't mind filling the swimming pool with well water or drinking well water. But how are you supposed to put a fire out with well water?"

Realtor Paul Schwallier of Coldwell Banker Schmidt Realtors in Grand Rapids sold the Ballybunion home. Currently, he has seven listings for homes of $1 million or more, five of which are in isolated areas without municipal water sources.

"I don't see a problem with homes in outlying areas," he said. "There are fire and theft alarm systems — I think they're covered."

As development pushes further outward, real estate interests and fire protection officials are now increasingly at odds. Nowhere is that more apparent than the current debate over changes to the state's residential building code that will mandate sprinkler systems in all new homes.

"I guess our big push is response time, especially when you look at all these people building houses further and further out in these rural areas," said Doug Irvine Jr., president of Brigade Fire Protection in Belmont. "The average home will burn down in 14 minutes, and that's a decent response time for a fire department."

Michigan has not yet revised its building code to mandate residential sprinkler systems.

Don Pratt of Wake Pratt Construction in Auburn Hills is chair of the state construction code commission, and voted against the amendment. His firm built 18 sprinkler-equipped homes as part of a development in the late 1990s. In that case, the Southeast Michigan municipality required the sprinklers because city water and sewer wasn't available in the area. As a result of freezing Michigan temperatures and poor maintenance, none of those systems are currently operational.

"Who is going to maintain them? You can't even get homeowners to change the batteries in fire alarms," Pratt said. "You can't protect people from being stupid."

Sprinkler systems are largely unnecessary in homes built in the past decade, Pratt explained, because of fire safety features designed into the structure. Unlike a commercial structure or high-rise, homes have guaranteed egress for escape. Plus, modern homes are built to contain fires from spreading to other rooms.

Judy Barnes, CEO of the Home Builders Association of Greater Grand Rapids, said the cost would deter people from building new homes.

At roughly $1.50 a square foot, Irvine argues adding sprinklers would amount to only a slightly less expensive carpet. The most significant costs will come for homes that need to install holding tanks and pumps for lack of city water — where sprinklers could have the most value.

Irvine said the sprinkler systems have little effect on insurance rates. Barnes suggested the increased risk of water damage could actually raise rates.

For Pratt, economics is not the real issue.

"Do we need fire sprinklers in one-and two-family dwellings?" he asked. "Certainly they are going to save real estate. There is no question about it. But it won't save lives."    

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