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Wisconsin’s Legislature needs to take a stand on fire safety; we hope it comes down on the side of saving lives.

In an opinion last week, state Attorney General Brad Schimel said the state cannot enforce a 7-year-old rule that fire sprinklers be required in new apartment buildings with three to 20 units.

Why not? Well, because Gov. Scott Walker and the GOP-controlled Legislature— in their drive to curb overactive restrictions by state agencies — passed a law limiting the ability of state agencies to pass rules that go beyond what is directly authorized by state law.

One of those state agencies, the Department of Safety and Professional Services, in 2008 had adopted regulations requiring fire-suppressing sprinkler systems in residential apartment buildings with three to 20 units — for all buildings built after Jan. 1, 2011.

At the time, the Wisconsin Builders Association challenged the new rule, but it was upheld by the state Circuit Court of Appeals, which said the agency had the power to set the regulation because it had broad authority in keeping buildings safe.

But when the Legislature restricted the ability of agencies to set regulations in 2011, the sprinkler law was caught up in the consequences. Under state law, not agency regulations, sprinkler systems are required in buildings with more than 20 units.

That set up some enforcement flip-flopping within the Walker administration. Earlier this year, the administration said it was considering dropping the rule, then backed off and said it would be enforced. Six months later, Walker’s DSPS said it didn’t think the rule was enforceable — and stopped enforcing it.

They asked Schimel for his opinion, which came down last week.

The back-and-forth over the agency regulation last summer triggered an expected response from state fire officials.

Milwaukee Fire Chief Mark Rohlfing told a Milwaukee newspaper in August: “To think we’re going to roll that back is disheartening. As firefighters, we know that sprinklers save lives. When you look at a building and you think ‘What can I do for protecting that building and the people in it?’ the single most important component of that is a sprinkler system.”

He called on legislators to take up the issue directly. We echo that call.

Yes, we understand that sprinkler systems can add several thousands of dollars to the cost of apartment building construction. And, yes, we understand that a sprinkler system is not as sexy as an apartment pool or community building when marketing an apartment. But those don’t save lives — or save apartment owners the cost of reconstruction in the event of a fire, either.

Even the Wisconsin Builders Association has said they might have to compromise on the issue.

So fine. Tee it up again and sort it out. And when — hopefully soon — the Legislature does that, we would hope they keep in mind that the number of fires in the United States stood at around 3.2 million as recently as 1977. Fire deaths that year were 7,395 people. In 2015, according to the National Fire Prevention Association, the numbers had dropped to 1.3 million fires and 3,280 fire deaths.

That’s progress and the Legislature should keep us on the path toward reducing those numbers with a sprinkle of support.


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