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Perspective

Making sense of big government

A ‘nanny-state’ regulation that makes surprising sense.

john jay cabuay

WHEN I ARRIVED FOR A SWIM at Tufts University’s Hamilton Pool in Medford one recent fall afternoon, the usually translucent roof was hidden by a ceiling of thick lumber planks atop floor-to-roof scaffolding. I asked someone what was up and almost dropped my goggles when I learned that the staging was for workers to install an automatic sprinkler system to prevent fire. In a masonry building. Above a swimming pool.

I am far from reflexively anti-regulation. I began my newspaper career in eastern Kentucky, reporting on coal miners who were dying from preventable accidents and black lung disease enabled by weak mine health and safety regulations (and even weaker enforcement). As for the state of the regulatory scene today, think two words: compounding pharmacy. But mandating sprinklers in a swimming pool seems precisely the kind of case seized on by the we-hate-big-government crowd to make the claim of bureaucratic overreach and nanny-state nonsense.

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So I made some calls. The Department of Public Safety informed me that state law requires automatic sprinklers in most new nonresidential construction greater than 7,500 square feet. The requirement extends to older structures attached to such new construction; Tufts’s World War II-era pool is connected to a new sports complex on one side and to an older building on the other.

The law does allow building owners to challenge the sprinkler requirement before a state body called the Automatic Sprinkler Appeals Board. University officials declined to comment on why they chose not to. Maybe they didn’t want to be seen as anti-safety. Maybe they decided to just go along to get the project done. But why should an appeal be even necessary in what seems such an obvious case? Can’t common sense sometimes prevail?

“To be honest, I had some of the same thoughts you did about requiring sprinklers in a concrete building over water,” says Medford Deputy Fire Chief Fran Fusco. “It was going to cost Tufts some money, and it seemed illogical. We even tried to see if there was some way to get an exception.”

But while state law charges local fire chiefs with enforcing the sprinkler requirement, they are not empowered to grant exceptions. And Fusco thinks that may actually be a good thing. Yes, he explains, a case could be made against requiring sprinklers in this particular building. But what about the next building owner who does seek an exemption? And the one after that? “Sometimes things aren’t so cut and dried,” Fusco says. “And when you open up gray areas, they can get larger and larger.” Along with the chance that bad decisions will be made.

Stephen Coan, longtime state fire marshal, is often asked about the sprinkler rule. “People say: ‘Cement doesn’t burn. Steel doesn’t burn,’ ” he tells me. “But cement and steel are impacted by high-temperature fire. There is no such thing as a totally fireproof building.” Besides, Coan says, the public and firefighters are increasingly endangered by what is put inside buildings. “Most interiors used to be wood-based. Now we see more and more plastics and synthetics that burn hotter, faster, and with more toxicity.”

It’s hard for me to fully grasp that danger, especially while swimming laps. While requiring sprinklers in the Tufts pool area still doesn’t pass my personal sniff test, I recognize the need for regulators to err on the side of reasonable caution. I also recognize that they would have hell to pay if they failed to do so. “Most people believe they could be the victim of a crime but not that they could be a victim of fire,” says Coan. “But if a fire does occur, the public expects us as regulators to be sure that buildings are protected to give people adequate time to safely escape.”

So maybe we have a lesson here: Where there’s regulatory smoke, there may not be fire.

BY THE NUMBERS

1,365

Number of US civilians injured or killed in nonresidential fires in 2011.

Phil Primack is a writer and editor in Medford. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

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