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Sunday, June 18, 2000

June 18, 2000 Large homes a problem for Fire Department - Greenwich Time

Greenwich firefighters, according to Fire Chief Daniel Warzoha, are facing a new challenge:

keeping on top of firefighting techniques when new houses keep getting bigger.An April fire at a 13,000-square-foot home on Perkins Road shows the problems of fighting mansion fires, Warzoha said. With more than 30 firefighters on the job for about 40 minutes, the decision was made to sacrifice part of the house and stop the fire from consuming any more of the building."We had to change tactics to try and establish ourselves in an aggressive manner to cut off the fire," Warzoha said. "We realized the potential to lose the whole wing, so we established a point in the building to make a stand and stop the fire."In some parts of Greenwich, a 13,000-square-foot house is a modest home. House sizes have continued to grow, even after November 1998 Planning and Zoning regulations attempted to rein in square footage. In areas such as Conyers Farm, where lots are divided by 10-acre parcels, house sizes can go as high as 27,225 square feet. A 54,450-square-foot mansion would be allowable if the buyer purchased 20 acres of land.Many homes being built now are more than 20,000 square feet, topping the size of Greenwich Avenue office buildings. But unlike those buildings, Warzoha said, the building codes that require sprinklers, shaftways andcertain sorts of nonflammable materials in commercial buildings don't apply to private homes. And unlike most office buildings, large houses don't have any uniformity in design, he added. "With each different unique structure, there comes a unique structure problem for us."State standards of operation exist for fighting different sorts of structure fires, but none has been written for large single-family homes, he said. So as house sizes grow, the department is learning on its feet, coming upwith its own plans and techniques for saving mansions. "Nobody has developed that program on a state level yet," Warzoha said. "Doing a large, single-family structure fire - it's definitely a difficult animal."The difference between homes and most commercial buildings is one of compartmentalization, according to Walt Sterling, Senior Fire Protection Specialist for the National Fire Prevention Association, a Quincy, Mass.-based nonprofit group that creates models of building and safety codes that can be implemented by municipalities around the country. "In a home, you have more compartments, more individual rooms, whereas in a commercial building you have more open space," he said. Commercial buildings tend to have rooms sectioned off around the periphery of the floor with open space in the middle, making navigating the area when visibility is limited by thick smoke easier, Sterling said. But when visibility is bad, a predictable floor plan only makes things so much easier.The bigger difference between commercial buildings and some private homes is the presence of sprinklers, he said. And residential sprinkler systems, he said, are becoming more and more common. About 2,000 municipalities around the country - from Massachusetts to Florida, Arizona and California - now have ordinances requiring sprinklers based on the size of the structure, not its use.In many areas, he added, the push for sprinklers has had as much to do with staffing as with public safety. Fighting a fire in a large home in a secluded area requires a lot of people to make up for time lost in getting there. Large houses also tend to have lots of furniture and decorations, making the fire more severe and a harder battle, he said. "There's a lot of communities that require sprinkler protection for certain size buildings, but it's because of the manpower," Sterling said. "Their budgets are strapped."Sprinkler systems have seen improvements in recent years as well, he said. While sprinklers have been in use for about 100 years, new systems on the market go off within about 45 seconds after the heat detector is triggered, twice as quickly as the ones on the market just a few years ago did, he said. And a sprinkler spreading 15 or 20 gallons of water will do a lot less damage to the interior than hoses that spray between 175 and 200 gallons a minute when the fire trucks show up.What has made getting such ordinances passed in many communities, however, are homeowners associations. Local governments might be reluctant to impose standards on private homes if property owners complain about the costs of installing the systems, he said.Such problems could pose difficulties in Greenwich if new building codes or sprinkler ordinances were ever discussed, Warzoha said. "It's easier to regulate (commercial buildings) because of the occupancy of the structure," Warzoha said. "It's not a single-family home, so there's a code. You can regulate the materials that go into a public structure - you can't in a private house."A person's home is their castle," he added. "They have eminent domain over their property."

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