Government

Somers Balks at a Less-Stringent Fire Barrier for Home Garages

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SOMERS, N.Y. - Somers is resisting a change in state building codes that would force the town to sharply reduce the required fire resistance of some home-construction materials.

“Our No. 1 job here is safety,” Supervisor Rick Morrissey said in declaring the town’s intention to maintain its current 45-minute fire barrier, not the state’s new 20-minute standard, scheduled to take effect statewide next month.

While Somers, like other local governments, can enact its own standards, stricter than the state’s, it must obtain Albany’s permission—no sure thing—to do so.

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Assistant Building Inspector Thomas Tooma, who alerted town officials to the pending changes in the state code, is now drafting Somers’ appeal to retain its stricter fire-resistance rules.

“I’m just looking for the same language that’s been in the code for many, many years,” he said in an interview late last week.

At issue are the walls and ceilings that separate a garage from a home’s habitable spaces. A longstanding provision of the town building code, in step with state code, insists on the use of fire-resistant 5/8-inch drywall. The thicker panel, replacing half-inch drywall commonly covering the house’s remaining walls and ceilings, provides a 45-minute firestop. The thinner panel is rated at only a 20-minute firestop.

The same 45- and 20-minute time standards for fire resistance also apply to doors and other openings in the affected garage.

“Primarily, it would be a car fire in a garage that concerns me,” Tooma said.

In a fire, the drywall’s water content, just over 20 percent of the gypsum, turns to steam, slowing heat transmission. In the thicker, fire-rated drywall, known as “Type X,” glass fibers and other additives further increase fire resistance. That’s why a Type X, 5/8-inch drywall, while only 25 percent thicker than standard half-inch drywall, is rated as 125 percent more fire-resistant.

The advantage of a longer firestop seems evident on its face. But Tooma points out a specific benefit for any municipality lacking a paid fire department, one that can roll 24/7 on a moment’s notice.

Somers is “protected by a 100 percent volunteer fire-emergency service,” Tooma said. “We don’t have fire crews in the firehouse when the call’s dispatched. We have fire department members at family functions, at a barbecue, at home sleeping. They have to get to the firehouse, get the apparatus and then get to the location of the alarm. I think that the 45-minute separation would benefit the response time.”

He would like to see the longer firestop broadly enforced. “I think it really should be a statewide thing,” Tooma said.

“That’s actually one of the questions on the application to have a more restrictive local standard,” he noted. “The question is, ‘Do you think your proposal should go beyond the boundaries of your municipality and should be statewide?’…I’m going to say yes.”

Tooma, now finishing the paperwork that will underpin the town’s formal bid to keep a 45-minute firestop, has no predictions on the chances for success. “The Town Board has been great, very receptive to the proposal,” he said, “and I just hope the state is the same.”

He’s talked with other building officials about the proposed local exception. “They told me, ‘Good luck and let me know when you get to Albany,’” Tooma said.

In Albany, a state panel known as the Code Council will decide the town’s request. A 17-member committee appointed by the governor, it includes building industry figures, firefighters, state administrators and elected officials. The panel reviews and updates state construction and fire codes, which are meant to protect both the occupants of a building and the firefighters who might have to rescue them and extinguish a blaze in the structure. 

The council hears an appeal like Somers’ to impose a local standard more restrictive than the state’s code. It then rules, up or down, on whether the jurisdiction can do so.

As official compiler of state regulations, the secretary of state’s office sets and updates the statewide building code. Asked why Albany would appear to relax a critical standard like fire safety, a spokesperson said only that the change was based on revisions in the 2015 International Residential Code (IRC).

“The provisions in section R302 of the 2015 IRC reflect the most recent national consensus on fire-resistance-rated assemblies,” the spokesperson wrote in an email response.

The International Code Council in Washington publishes the IRC, which is essentially a national model code for home building. A council spokesman did not respond to efforts to learn what motivated the reduction in fire-retardation standards.

Rather than follow the state’s lowered minimum requirements, some builders plan to follow even stricter, voluntary safety standards.

“Anyone who decided to follow the new code would be stupid,” said Jan Corning, vice president of Brenner Builders in Bedford Hills. “There’s just no meaningful reason to do it.”

A member of the Somers Planning Board, Corning said she supports the town’s effort to have the 45-minute standard retained in its local building code. “The difference in cost per square foot [of drywall],” she said, “is maybe a dime.”

Calling the state’s new fire-protection standard “horrible,” Corning said, “I would never build a house that had that.”

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