Fire sprinkler retrofit is high cost, low benefit

What we have here is a solution in pursuit of a problem.

A bill in a City Council committee would require the retrofitting of all high-rise residences in Philadelphia with automated water sprinklers at great cost with virtually no safety benefit.

Councilman Mark Squilla, co-sponsor of a well-intended, bad bill (Photo: Philadelphia Inquirer)

If residents of high-rises won’t benefit, who will?

Local 692, Sprinkler Fitters.

I’m pro-union, and if this work were necessary, I’d want it done by union workers.

But it is not necessary.

The bill was introduced by Council members Mark Squilla, veteran, and Katherine Gilmore Richardson, the youngest Black woman ever elected to Council. It is written only for residential buildings, and is a major blunder. 

How many high-rises are there in Philadelphia? (A high-rise is defined as a building at least 75 feet high, about seven stories.)

The city can’t provide an exact number, says Andre Del Valle, vice president for government affairs of the Pennsylvania Apartment Association (PAA), which opposes the bill. 

So does the Community Associations Institute, which estimates there are about 900 condominium associations of all sizes in Philadelphia.

Del Valle says the city estimates between 160 and 220 high-rise residential dwellings. The mayor’s office did not respond to my email seeking to verify that range. The economic research company Econsult Solutions, Inc., hired by PAA, identified 140 high-rise properties. These buildings  are  home to some 26,000 Philadelphians, more than half of them, 14,000, are renters.

That’s the number of people.

How many people have died in fires in the last 30 years?

“There have been no deaths in office high-rises since Meridian,” the 1991 blaze that claimed the lives of three firefighters, Philadelphia Fire Department Chief Fire Marshal Dennis Merrigan tells me.

The fire department does not record deaths by type of residential structure, but based on his 32 years in the PFD, regarding high-rise residential deaths,  Merrigan says, “If it would be five, that would be a lot” in the last 30 years. That averages out to one death every six years — if that.

“We don’t have a lot of high-rise fires,” he says.

Philadelphia high-rises constructed after the One Meridian Plaza tragedy were required to have fire sprinklers. Older buildings were ordered to be retrofitted with smoke detectors, which work remarkably well. Fire extinguishers were mandated for each floor, along with water-delivery standpipes to aid in firefighting.  Apartments in these older buildings are concrete boxes, Merrigan says, which usually restrict a fire to the unit where it began. 

[Personal disclosure: I live in a Philly high-rise.]

Part of my youth was spent in a Brooklyn project high-rise that was built in the early ‘50s. Each public-housing apartment was basically a concrete box. 

I now live in a condominium high-rise, constructed 20 years before the Meridian fire, and just like the Brooklyn project, each apartment  is a concrete box. There has not been a fire death in my building in its 50 years.

“There is no evidence to suggest that the installation of automatic sprinkler systems in existing high-rise apartment complexes is absolutely necessary,” concluded an engineering study by Thriven Design, hired by PAA. It noted that New York City and Chicago each had turned down proposals to retrofit high-rises with sprinkler systems. 

That’s true, responds the National Fire Sprinkler Association (NFSA), but New York suffered a high-rise fire in 2022 that claimed 17 lives. (The New York Times later reported none of the deaths were from fire — all resulted from smoke inhalation as a result of multiple self-closing doors not functioning properly.)   

What would it cost to retrofit all Philadelphia high-rises with sprinkler systems?

Between $20-50,000 per unit, says the PAA’s Del Valle. The stunning cost range reflects the vast differences in the size of apartments — from studio to three-bedroom — the size of the building, and materials used in construction, he said. That’s an average of $35,000.

Not surprisingly, Squilla produces remarkably lower estimates from the NFSA PenJerDel Chapter trade group. 

Executive Director David Kurasz provides stats with a range of $7-12,000. That’s an average of $9,500. 

Even accepting the lower estimate, that’s an enormous burden to put on the shoulders of high-rise dwellers, some of whom are on fixed incomes. Others, such as low-income student apartment dwellers, could be forced out of their homes permanently, adding to the city’s housing crisis. 

Temporarily relocating people might be necessary while the retrofitting construction work is being done, says Del Valle, while Kurasz says work done on several local buildings were done in a day and did not require any relocation.

Responding to my request, NFSA provided me with the names of six high-rises that had been retrofitted. Only one returned my call. Kevin Jensen, the consultant for 2400 Chestnut street, says the retrofit required residents to be relocated for “about a week.” He could not provide a cost estimate of retrofitting each apartment. 

You can reduce the issue to a cost/benefit analysis.

You might say the cost of a human life is incalculable, and every effort should be made to save every life. But that’s not true. More than 40,000 Americans died in auto crashes last year, but we don’t ban driving cars. It is an assumed risk.

So is living in a Philadelphia high-rise, but it is very low risk, so why the push for something that is so very expensive and so little needed?

That’s what I asked bill co-sponsor Squilla.

It’s not so cut and dried, he tells me. Here it gets a little complicated. 

Coming down the road is an upgrade to the International Fire Code that will be adopted by municipalities, which update their codes every 3-5 years, Squilla says.

Squilla believes this is coming, and we might as well get ahead of it, although he admits the city could exempt itself from that part of the code. He is looking for ways to subsidize the work, he tells me.

But that would shift the cost from the individual owner, like me, to the taxpayer, like you. That’s good for me, but it doesn’t seem right.

There’s no burning need for retrofitted fire sprinklers in high-rises.

Update: On 11/29/23, the city told me there are 144 high-rises in the city.

27 thoughts on “Fire sprinkler retrofit is high cost, low benefit”

  1. Stu,
    Why do you care if the workers are union or not? Not everyone wants to join one just like not everyone wants to join Sam’s Club or the Kiwanas. It’s personal preference. Why not be pro-choice on thos issue?

    1. Because unions built the middle class and union workers (usually) get higher pay, better benefits, OT pay and protection from atrocious employers. That’s why I buy American (as opposed to imported) whenever can. It may cost a bit more, but it is good for America.

      1. Unions are also the first to object to improvements in technology that would cost them jobs. Remember the to-do by the Philadelphia unions over the waterless urinals (in the new Comcast building being erected, I believe)? How was the brouhaha settled? By letting the unions install unneeded copper pipes leading to where the waterless urinals were installed. And who can forget the Carpenters Union and the Civic Center head-butting? Yes, unions probably do it better, but at MUCH higher cost. (Full disclosure: my first job required me to join the Teamsters Union.)

        1. Urinals covered above. As to the rest, I am not saying all unions are perfect. No profession is.
          I am saying they created middle-class America and when people say they have “too much” power, I say, more than manufacturers? More than Wall Street? More than Madison Avenue?

  2. I am on a fixed income and this could Forse me out of my home of 43 years. The only who benefits are the building trade unions

  3. Benefit vs. risk, solution in search of a problem. You nailed it. I lived in a high rise in Chicago for 12 years. The nearest we got to any type of hazard from a fire was when one was down the block and we had to cut off our air conditioners due to the smoke. Not a terrible inconvenience in the overall scheme of things.

  4. It seems the Philadelphia Unions control city council the mayor. This started with Johnny Doc and local 98. Doc was convicted in Federal Court and is in the middle of a second trial and is facing a third. He was also the President of the Building Trades Council. Ryan Boyer the new president of the Building Trades Council and the unions involved were the top money supporters of the new mayor. Philadelphia unions are used to getting what they want from the mayor and city council. I’m sure they will be building the new 76’s stadium if the people of the area want it or not. I believe Ryan Boyer was the first person picked for the mayor’s transition team. And remember didn’t Jim Kenney and his Council team vote for the unjust soda tax allegedly because local 98 officials wanted it. Yes the Philadelphia unions seem to have a choke hold on Philadelphia politicians. The sprinkles may soon be installed by the Sprinkler Fitters union members.

  5. Very wise of you to point out the beneficiary of this proposed bill is the installation union. (And to the other comment above; when has a non-union contractor of this specialty ever been allowed to compete for work in our union monopoly city? Please recall the damaging power of unions, plumbers then, who forced Comcast to pay millions to install useless water supply piping for the waterless urinals, which were in the original bid specifications that they bid on!)
    Please, City Council, consult honest to goodness fire and sprinkler specialists, engineers and architects, too, in this field before making a big mistake, and then please set a precedent for this new administration for decisions made for everyone and not just to benefit exclusive non-competitive unions. There is the whole rest of our city population and all our excellent non-union workers, who are also taxpayers and voters, to consider.

    1. Unions are mandated only for city-paid work. If you hire non Union, expect the inflatable rat outside the workplace.
      As to Comcast, my recollection is that the unions warned that the “eco friendly” low flush urinals would not work — and they didn’t.

      1. We all need to ask all city leaders why unions are required for city work, paid for with everyones taxes, when union labor is 25-45% more expensive than excellent competitive non-union work? Why would the city have a policy to grossly overcharge, burden, our own taxpayers?

        Please consult architects and engineers to get up to date about waterless urinals and sprinkles. Of course, unions would tell anyone not too questioning that waterless would not work!
        Thank you.

        1. As mentioned, union work IS more expensive because union workers usually make more money, get more benefits, and have more protection.
          In a union town, such as this, all government-paid jobs are union.
          The economic basis for this is higher paid workers have more to spend and less likely to need city services for health, for example.

  6. An example of pay to play. Political Office Holders received campaign donations from PACS, Unions, Companies that have vested interests in specific laws. I wonder how many council members received donations from the Sprinkle-fitters union. The right thing to do for each council member who received a donation would be to recuse themselves from voting on this issue. That is not how the system works. Our famous twice incarcerated congressman said it correctly, “Money talks and bullshit walks”. Get ready to pay for the choices of the new city council. The issue of installing a new system is not an immediate emergency. Are other options available?

    1. Aloysius, You are 100% right your backround from your career makes you aware of what the unions do in our city, It’s called pay to play. Wasn’t Johnny Doc and Councilman Bobby Henon allegedly convicted in Federal Court for this. Didn’t the two of them allegedly shut down I believe non-union electricians from installing much needed special x-ray machines in Childrens Hospital. Didn’t Johnny Doc past head of the Electricians union sit in with councilman Bobby Henon on negotiations with Comcast.The Building Trades Council backed Cherelle Parker with money and workers on election day. I won’t be surprised if the 76ers stadium will be built soon. The unions control Philadelphia.

      1. Agree, 100%. It’s no secret. IMO, union labor costs are also “high cost, low benefit” to Philadelphia tax-paying citizens, for the most part. Too many pencil-pushers. DC is not the only “swamp.”

    I have been recovering from ‘old age symptoms’, and hopefully, I’m back.
    As I read through the responses, I found quite a bit or erroneous information. Obviously, some of the info is correct.
    In no particular order, unions are either your friends or your foes. If you were raised in a human environment, it certainly was different than that of an ‘open shop’ household. Sorry to say, most of the good that unions do or have done is long gone. Outrageously high wages over a competing non-union contractor is a thing of the past. In order to compete, the work must be met by the standards set forth in contract documents. Many contractors can not meet the standards.
    City workers are union.
    Everybody that wants favors from council donates. That’s the system.
    Prevailing wage is specified on government work.
    Sprinklers: To pipe an existing building will be cost prohibitive. All new work should have sprinklers. I have been out of the code business for years, so I don’t know just how screwed up the Philly Code are. Keep in mind that all parties lobby for their version of building codes. Sad to say, Harrisburg doesn’t have the guts to make the codes uniform, as well as better inspector and contractor training. ( codes are a minimum building asset. If you can’t build above the codes, you are in the wrong business. )
    New Jersey, for example, has ‘licensed inspectors”. Their course work is college level and you only inspect what you are licensed to inspect. Not so here in Philly.
    The International Building Codes were revamped and tailored to New Jersey. In particular, the ‘Rehab Code’ is unprecedented. It makes the old and existing building code look so out of place.
    The recent deaths due to fires are a sad example of being ‘behind the times’. The collapse of the building next to the (?) Salvation Army should never have happened for many reasons.
    Two words that are seldom seen and are certainly not used: RESPONSIBILITY and ACCOUNTIBILITY.

      1. Stu,
        I am aware of the codes, although I am retired. The problem isn’t the new construction, but the old. In the new, you almost have to bring the fire into the building, meaning that just about everything in that building is ‘supposed’ to be fire retardant.
        The problem is the old ( ancient ) construction. Much of the old stock ( 100 plus years in Philly ) still has knob and tube electrical wiring. the construction itself is basically a fire trap. Most smoke detectors are BATTERY only. People pull those 9 volt batteries for their own use – toys, electronics, etc. Escape in these old fire traps it almost impossible when you discuss multiple family dwellings.
        This and other problems will never go away unless there is a thorough ‘house cleaning’ of Philly’s government.

  8. Quite a debate! I think you made your point about the sprinklers, Stu. Just ensure the use of smoke detectors.
    Unionization gets a little more complicated. I am basically in your corner, but it’s clear the really big unions can outpower industry, as in the case of the UAW. In principle, they are ideal. But, when they demand outmoded work rules and/or price the companies they work with out of the market, being insensitive to the economic pressures of the marketplace, they need more objective leadership. A former associate, John McElroy did a study of work rules the UAW insists on that just waste everybody’s time and money. So, as you say, they ain’t perfect.

    1. No argument with smoke detectors, the hard-wired ones were mandated and retrofitted a few years ago.
      And you can hear them go off when you cook something on the stove. 🙁
      I oppose “make work” rules, and newspapers used to have many. But you know what? They were negotiated into existence by the union AND management. And that’s how they have to be dropped.
      Per the UAW, remember they got shorted when the economy soured, and are making up for some of it now.
      Remember, too, many employers, including the Inquirer, walked away from pensions that were promised to their employees, and were counted on for survival after retirement. Many companies plead poverty and walked away from their promises.

  9. Typical democrat spend,spend,spend. I wonder how much of a kick back he gets from the union.

  10. It is sad to see an article lead with a false statement that fire sprinklers provide virtually no safety benefit. Fire Sprinklers absolutely provide an immeasurable safety benefit. Improved safety and the protection of human life is why Fire Sprinklers are currently REQUIRED in all new high-rise construction. The national building codes recognize the need for fire sprinklers in all high-rises and will also be seeking to require similar retrofit requirements.
    The statement that only labor will benefit is ill-informed and simply untrue. Residents of high-rises will absolutely benefit from the installation of these systems which control the flames in seconds and prevent the spread of fire and deadly smoke, not only in their unit but to neighboring units. First responders who risk their lives fighting these fires, which are the most challenging types of fires, will benefit from the added safety. Building owners and unit owners will benefit by protecting their investment.
    Is there a cost, of course. However, the installation numbers that we provided were real world completed projects, while the opposition is just simply estimating. If it is the truth that you are seeking, ask for real world completed numbers and make a fair comparsion. The NFSA and other like-minded organizations are actively working on tax benefits to mitigate the cost to the end user. We admit that there is an investment that is associated with this proposed legislation, but we also know that the investment is well worth it in the short term as well as the long term. And, if even one life can be saved, isn’t that worth it?

    1. I never said there was virtually no benefit, and, no, it is not worth it to save a single life. As I noted, if ONE life were paramount, we would outlaw cars that killed 40,000 Americans last year.

  11. Don’t think you need fires sprinklers in your high-rise? Let’s take a look at the facts. It is true, high-rise residential fires are low probability events, but the consequences can be catastrophic. Fires have changed drastically over the last decades. They now reach the point where they become a threat to all the occupants of the building within 5 minutes of the first flame. This point, termed “flashover” used to take up to 30 minutes to occur. Smoke detectors and smoke detection systems do nothing to prevent flashover. Would you rather have a system that tells you your life is in danger, or one that eliminates the danger?
    “Concrete boxes” are not immune to fire. In fact, the buildings themselves do not burn, it’s the contents and always has been. We need to prevent the contents from burning to the point where flashover occurs and study upon study has shown that only fire sprinklers can do that.
    The fire that killed 17 people and injured 44 in the Bronx in 2022 was also a “concrete box.” The fire was contained to the unit of origin and the adjacent hallway. Stating that the deaths were not caused by fire is misleading because the fire was the trigger that caused the toxic smoke that led to these deaths. The 2017 Grenfell Tower fire in London caused 80 fatalities and 70 injuries. How bad can it get if you are in a building without fire sprinklers? Google the news story about the Silver Springs Maryland fire earlier this year featuring the headline “I’m not going to make it” that killed one and displaced 400.
    Saying there is no evidence that the safety fire sprinklers provide is not needed is quite frankly, ridiculous.

    1. I absolutely do NOT need sprinklers, despite the three or four high-rise deaths you cite, worldwide, among the thousands of high-rises without sprinklers.

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