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DIGGING DEEPER: Deadly apartment fire ignites “sprinkler rule” debate

MADISON (WKOW) — Laws and state code surrounding automatic fire sprinklers are sparking another debate in Wisconsin after one person was found dead in an apartment fire in Sun Prairie.

Sun Prairie officials note when the apartment complex was built it did not require sprinkler protection. In Wisconsin, the “sprinkler rule” has put lawmakers and firefighters at odds for years.

In 2008, the state required buildings built after 2011, with three or more apartment units, to include sprinklers. But that all changed in 2011. Then-governor Scott Walker signed legislation limiting the state’s ability to enforce the sprinkler rule, saying it was more restrictive than current state law.

Today, buildings with 20+ units must install sprinklers, but the Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services wrote their own code that any new construction with three or more units needs sprinklers. In 2017, former attorney general Brad Schimel issued an opinion reaffirming the state cannot enforce DSPS rules.

Madison’s Fire Prevention Engineer Bill Sullivan says the whole issue is confusing and he would much rather require all new buildings, regardless of size, install sprinklers.

“There’s not been enough being done,” said Sullivan. “We need to have a set level that every residential apartment building getting built needs to have fire sprinklers in them.”

Madison Fire said out of about 2,800 apartments in the city about 30-40% have sprinklers if they were built in the last 20 years. Anything older only about 10% have them.

Sullivan said the department might consider another push to change sprinkler laws, but in the past have been unsuccessful.

“For a few bucks a square foot, it’s money well spent to protect not only lives but also the investment in the property owner,” he said.

WKOW reached out to the Wisconsin Builders Association who said any change in current law to require older buildings be retrofitted with sprinklers would require new legislation. In the past, the Association also was not supportive of mandating apartments with three or more units to install sprinklers.



Emilee Fannon

Capital Bureau Chief

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