No rain on this parade: Understand your obligations for indoor sprinkler systems

Amanda Maher
| 6 min. read
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It was a sunny Saturday afternoon on February 1, 2014 when a seven-alarm fire broke out in a Back Bay apartment building in Boston. Officials believe the fire started as a result of carelessly disposed material before it quickly spread from the fifth floor to the sixth of the historic brownstone apartment on Massachusetts Avenue. Roughly 40 residents were displaced from the building, which contains 30 apartments, and there was an estimated $2.5 million in damage caused by the fire. Thankfully, at least, nobody was seriously injured.

Upon later review, the fire chief said that it is one of only 50 buildings in Boston that is not required to have a sprinkler system in each unit. According to local fire code, the building is only required to have sprinklers in the hallways.

Just a month later, many of the same firefighters returned to the neighborhood to combat a blaze that engulfed a four-story brownstone on Beacon Street. The fire, which was caused by two ironworkers installing wrought-iron railings, was exacerbated by 40 MPH winds that allowed it to move quickly from the basement to the 10 condominium units above. “In 30 years, I’ve never seen a fire travel that fast,” Deputy Fire Chief Joe Finn said at the time. This time, Boston Fire Department experienced  the ultimate loss: two firefighters died in the blaze. Additionally, 18 residents suffered injuries as a result of the fire.

Again, there was no sprinkler system in the brownstone. Though sprinklers “would have been a benefit,” the local fire code does not require the building to have them because of the property’s age and type, acting Boston Fire Commissioner John Hasson told reporters at the time.

In September 2014, at a meeting of the board of administrators that oversees the state building code, Massachusetts firefighters turned out in full force to protest changes in the code that would allow building owners to circumvent installation of sprinkler systems, changes that advocates have urged will make housing in Massachusetts more affordable. (By some estimates, it costs roughly $27,450 to install a sprinkler/fire alarm system in a three-family residential building.)

This begs the question: what obligation do landlords have to install and maintain residential  sprinkler systems, and who is responsible for their maintenance?

The answer to the first part of the question is largely dependent on local and state building codes. The National Fire Protection Association (coincidentally, perhaps, based in Massachusetts) maintains a list of home sprinkler system requirements by state. This is a valuable starting point for owners and property managers interested in learning more about the legal requirements, but one should also look at local building codes. Individual cities may have codes that are stricter than state laws. Generally speaking, single-family properties and 1-3 unit residential dwellings are exempt from sprinkler requirements, but again, always be sure to check local code to be sure.

Assuming the age and type of property requires a sprinkler system under state and local building codes, who is responsible for its installation and maintenance? This answer is largely dependent on the type of property in question: residential vs. commercial.

For residential units, the obligation typically falls on the landlord. Most lease agreements contain a provision regarding maintenance and repairs, and one such provision usually covers sprinkler systems, fire alarms and carbon monoxide detectors.  Such safety measures must be kept in working order by the landlord, but the lease may assign tenants the responsibility for replacing batteries and keeping all equipment in good working order (tenants may not remove equipment or otherwise alter to make it inoperative). Aside from the lease, many states require landlords to give written notice to all tenants disclosing fire safety and protection information (including notice as to when the sprinkler system was last inspected) and the notice must be signed by both parties.  

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Commercial properties are a totally different ballgame. The most widely used benchmark for sprinkler systems in commercial buildings is NFPA 13, the national Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems. All builders, owners and property managers must at least abide by the minimum standards outlined therein, including: (a) Automatic fire sprinkler systems must be installed in newly built commercial buildings of 5,000 sq. ft. or greater; or any single tenant expansion requiring a new certificate of occupancy that increases the area beyond 12,000 sq. ft.; and (2) Sprinkler systems must be installed throughout buildings that have more than 55’ in height.

Landlords and property managers are always best served to check local building codes to ensure there are no municipal regulations that require owners to exceed the national fire protection standards.

Who installs and maintains sprinkler systems in commercial property depends on the terms of the lease. Most often, a building owner will include language that requires the tenant to maintain and repair the lease, something similar to as follows:

Maintenance and Repairs. Tenant shall maintain the Premises, its surrounding walls, floor, ceiling, roof, exterior entrances, service areas and all improvements therein and all appurtenances thereof in good order, condition and repair, making all needed maintenance, repairs and replacements, including, without limitation: maintaining lighting, heating and plumbing fixtures and heating, ventilation and air conditioning equipment and systems, and the fire protection sprinkler system in good order, condition and repair, making all needed maintenance, repairs and replacements.

In practice, it’s often the sprinkler system requirements that make or break a commercial lease deal. Some landlords may agree to make the necessary improvements to bring the property up to code as part of a comprehensive tenant improvement package.

Though landlords and property managers of all property types should stay up-to-date about local building codes, it’s particularly important to do so when properties contain 4+ units or include commercial space. These are the properties that are most likely covered by sprinkler system standards. Find out the local codes governing your property, and be sure to test, maintain and operate accordingly. As the courts recently found in a case out of New York, a landlord’s ignorance is no excuse for lack of compliance, even if the City hasn’t required an inspection for over 30 years.

Even if the installation and maintenance of the sprinkler system costs tens of thousands of dollars, just remember these systems can save people’s’ lives (and fire damage and costly lawsuits!). That’s priceless.

Read more on Maintenance & Improvements
Amanda Maher

Amanda Maher

Amanda Maher is a self-proclaimed policy wonk who dabbles in real estate law. She holds a B.S. in Political Science and Sociology from Boston University, as well as a master's in Urban and Regional Policy from Northeastern.

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