BOSTON — Faced with landlords using loopholes to sidestep a law requiring sprinkler systems, Beacon Hill lawmakers are considering a plan to mandate automatic sprinkler systems in all commercial buildings exceeding 7,500 square feet.
The proposal, approved late last month by a key legislative committee, would mandate sprinkler systems that could have slowed the inferno that started in the vacant Millennium nightclub in Lawrence on Jan. 21, destroying a city block.
Under current law and regulation, the nightclub's building, which was under renovation, did not require fire suppression systems.
"I hope that we can get it passed," said Rep. Ruth Balser, D-Newton. "It's really essential for saving lives."
Balser said there have never been multiple deaths from a fire in a commercial building with an automatic sprinkler system.
"This is the single most effective way to prevent fatality from fire," she said.
Owners of commercial buildings can avoid a current law by using separate additions, each under 7,500 square feet, to expand without being required to install a sprinkler system.
"What can occur is that buildings can be built incrementally," state Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan said in an interview.
The new legislation would consider buildings in their entirety. Square footage would include the total floor areas for all floor levels, basements, sub-basements and additions.
All buildings with permits approved after July 1, 2008, would be subject to the new regulations.
Sen. James E. Timilty, D-Walpole, the committee's Senate chairman, said he would vote for the bill when it reaches the Senate.
"We feel this will close that loophole and thereby require many of these large buildings to have what we think is appropriate for public safety, a sprinkler system," Timilty said.
Lawrence fire Chief Peter Takvorian said an automated sprinkler system could have slowed the spread of the South Lawrence fire.
"I think that there's little doubt that sprinklers are an effective deterrent to people being killed by fire," he said.
When the Millennium, at 34-44 Parker St., was purchased in 1997, state law allowed municipalities to decide whether to incorporate state regulations requiring sprinkler systems in 7,500-square-foot facilities. Lawrence did not make that requirement.
The new bill follows a 2004 law that requires all municipalities to mandate the sprinkler systems in nightspots holding 100 or more people. But at that time, the Millennium was closed. The law was passed following the 2003 Station nightclub fire in Warwick, R.I., that killed 100 people.
An early version of the new bill, sponsored by Balser, failed to pass in 2000.
Lawrence fire Capt. Bill Lannon said because the building was vacant, it was not affected by state law.
The building was under renovation at the time of the fire and would have required sprinklers at the end of the work in order to receive a certificate of occupancy.
Takvorian said the cost of such automated sprinkler systems was not likely to hold back larger commercial buildings such as mills. But Robert J. Halpin, president of the Merrimack Valley Economic Development Council, is not as sure.
Although he agreed that safety measures are needed, Halpin says that some commercial building owners could face financial difficulty as a result of the bill, which would require sprinkler systems costing from $40,000 to $100,000.
"When you purchase a piece of real estate, you have a fixed development budget," Halpin said. "Anytime you push that cost up, you begin to impact the viability of a project."