Firefighters & Home Builders at Odds About Safety Device

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Firefighters and Home builders are at odds about a device designed to prevent electrical fires.

A Committee with the Michigan Bureau of Construction Codes has voted to take a safety device out of the residential construction code. The April vote comes 8 years after the code was adopted that requires builders to install an Arc Fault Circuit Interrupter in every bedroom of a new home. Firefighters say the device saves lives by preventing electrical fires. Home builders say there are no statistics to prove it.

Investigators say if an AFCI were installed, it might have saved the life of a Lansing man. He died when a fire broke out in the middle of the night at his home on Everettdale. Firefighters blame the fire on an overloaded circuit. Lansing Fire Marshal Brad Drury says, “We've kind of become a plug and play society. Unfortunately when people are doing that, they don't look at the ratings of their devices and the ratings of their cords, plugging into the wall. Those fires, a lot of those fires, can overload the extension cords, the circuits outside the wall, and the AFCI is designed that it would help those electrical fires and electrical issues."

An AFCI costs about $40. Using a computer chip, it’s designed to shut off a circuit if something goes wrong. Firefighters say it’s becoming an important tool to save lives. But home builders say, it just adds on to the price of a new home. Lee Schwartz, Executive Vice President with the Home Builders Association of Michigan says, “This is about affordability and no need for the product. It's not like ground fault circuit interrupters which we support. Its not like smoke alarms which we support. We've got data from 2000 through 2010, 9 years of solid data, that show that there haven't been any deaths."

But firefighters cite statistics from the National Fire Protection Association that show from 2007 - 2011, electrical fires killed 6 people in Michigan. Drury says, “If we have fire safety devices in the code now, why would we be removing them? We don't really see the advantage to it, and the potential life safety issues of them not being there."

The Director of Michigan’s Bureau of Construction Codes, Irvin Poke says, “The code is a minimum standard. We have all kinds of storms and stuff, people can build their houses stronger, if they choose to. But with everything comes a cost, and I have the cost issue that I have to address. Maybe the fire service ought to have a campaign for consumers. Consumers can put these in, if they wish to."

Drury says, “Its becoming accepted technology and it should be utilized more appropriately, and actually expanded on, for everybody's safety."

The process to eliminate a requirement from Michigan’s Residential Building Code is lengthy. Public hearings on the matter will begin in March of next year.