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Updated fire code would affect new development

t Pre-existing buildings would not be required to meet standards.

The city is on the verge of adapting its first dedicated fire code, updating regulations and slashing contradictory language that was previously sprinkled throughout the Bainbridge Municipal Code.

For the Bainbridge Fire Department, it is business as usual.

While, on paper, the new code brings the city in line with best practices in fire safety and prevention, conforming the city to the fire code will be a slow process - paralleling the pace of development.

“People ask what we are doing and we’re trying to make standards on the island so that we can provide emergency services,” said Fire Chief Hank Teran. “Making sure roadways are wide enough and that we have enough water to fight a fire, these are some of the changes.”

The only buildings subjected to the regulations are new developments or existing properties that undergo substantial restructuring. Pre-existing infrastructure and buildings are not required to conform to the new code, leaving some long-standing firefighter concerns unresolved.

Fire access and water flow are two issues Bainbridge has been debating for years. More than 40 percent of the island does not have proper access to fire hydrants, according to the city’s code. Winslow Way is a particularly thorny issue with a substandard water main that was identified as inadequate in 1985 by the Washington Surveying and Rating Bureau (WSRB).

“I guess the new code doesn’t directly deal with it,” said Fire Marshal Jared Moravec. “What I mean by that is there are no retroactive provisions that are proposed. We can’t go in and enforce these requirements on buildings that met a pre-existing code.”

These pre-existing non-conforming conditions leave the fire department with a potentially dangerous scenario.

“If we have a fire, the possibility could exist where we wouldn’t have enough water to adequately control it,” Moravec said.

Moravec admits that while the new code will not be able to bring these old buildings into conformity, or instigate changes to infrastructure on Winslow Way, it will likely impact development. Proposed commercial buildings that do not have adequate fire flow to their site cannot be built until protection requirements are met. Exceptions are made for smaller buildings and dwellings that include fire sprinklers. This could lead to developers trimming down their designs, using less combustible materials and installing sprinklers.

“It does have an effect on property development, (developers) must ensure that life-saving safety requirements are complied with,” Teran said. “The contractor can decide a development is not compatible with the current water flow in an area and have to move elsewhere.”

“Three things happen if things stay the way they are,” Moravec said in regards to the current fire-safety situation on the island. “It might create some restrictions on new development and construction, (and) in the event of a fire we might not be available to gain control.” The third involved are the WSRB ratings.

The new code is a firm step in the direction of earning a stronger WSRB fire rating for the city. The 5,000-point system goes from a high of 1 to a low of 10 in 500-point increments. WSRB tallies such factors as water flow, fire department professionalism, 911 response, and education and prevention. Currently, Bainbridge Island is rated a 6 after improving one grade in August 2007.

“As a community’s fire rating improves, it can effect the actual insurance premiums,” said Dave Bruell, a WSRB vice president. “Generally the lower our rating the lower the insurance premiums, but companies aren’t required to lower their premiums when we make a change.”

However, many factors that effect a fire rating are out of the fire department’s hands. A new water main on Winslow Way, for example, could remove 20 to 30 WSRB deficiency points, a small percentage of the changes needed to jump to a category 5.

“The basic factors are looking at water supply, fire hydrants and mains, which is really out of fire station’s control,” Bruell said. “So you can have a community that has a great fire department and a low-water supply, and really we look at those specific conditions in the community.”

Water flow and fire department ratings make up 80 percent of the WSRB classification. The fact that Bainbridge is also has a volunteer-based department counts against the fire rating.

It is also debatable what a better rating will mean for home owners as the city conforms to the the new fire code.

“It’s complicated if you try to make generalizations,” said long-time resident and insurance agent Ross Thornburgh. “When they changed the fire protection rating from a 7 to a 6, it really didn’t impact home owners at all, it just helped the commercial side of the picture.”

Dave Christensen, of Farmer’s Insurance on Bainbridge, said that a decrease in fire ratings could save somewhere between 5 and 10 percent on the average household’s annual fire premiums.

“In my own personal opinion, the fire protection on the island is excellent,” Christensen said. “But a better fire protection class would indeed have reductions, though it will vary by company.”

Ultimately, it will take some time for Bainbridge to see the impacts of the new fire code and the effects it will have on developers and residents. For the Bainbridge Fire Department, they will continue to focus, as always, on prevention and quality of service.

“If there is any development in the immediate future, that development will see some of these changes we made,” Moravec said. “We’re going to continue to work provisions and helping to prepare for an event.”

The draft ordinance will receive public comment on Sept. 10. The city will vote to waive a third draft and adopt the language in September as well. It will likely go into effect five days after being adopted. A copy of the draft ordinance is available at http://www.bifd.org/ under the Fire Marshal’s section.

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