Retroactive Fire Protection Laws in MA: Do They Apply to Me? (Part 2)

When designing a new, or even modifying an existing, fire alarm or fire protection system, it is important to be aware of the implications of all applicable codes and standards. Did you know that beyond the Massachusetts State Building Code, 780 CMR, and the Massachusetts Comprehensive Fire Safety Code, 527 CMR 1.00, there is a series of other requirements specific to fire prevention that could apply to your building? Of particular interest is Chapter 148, Fire Prevention, of the General Laws of Massachusetts (M.G.L.’s), which contains several such sections.

This blog is the second in a series on the requirements and caveats of the various subsections of M.G.L. Chapter 148 Section 26 which specifically address requirements for automatic sprinkler systems, fire warning and smoke detection systems, and carbon monoxide alarms in certain buildings.  For Part 1 of the series focused on M.G.L Ch. 148 S. 26A and 26A½, please see here.

This second part of the series addresses M.G.L. Chapter 148 Section 26G.

M.G.L. Ch. 148 S. 26G: “Automatic Sprinkler Systems Required for Buildings and Structures Totaling More than 7,500 Gross Square Feet” reads as follows (only partial text reproduced – refer to the hyperlink above for the full text of M.G.L. Ch. 148 S. 26G):

Section 26G. Every building or structure, including any additions or major alterations thereto, which totals, in the aggregate, more than 7,500 gross square feet in floor area shall be protected throughout with an adequate system of automatic sprinklers in accordance with the provisions of the state building code. No such sprinkler system shall be required unless sufficient water and water pressure exists. For purposes of this section, the gross square footage of a building or structure shall include the sum total of the combined floor areas for all floor levels, basements, sub-basements and additions, in the aggregate, measured from the outside walls, irrespective of the existence of interior fire resistive walls, floors and ceilings. This section shall not apply to buildings used for agricultural purposes as defined in M.G.L. Ch. 128 S. 1A.

 The head of the fire department shall enforce the provisions of this section.

 Whoever is aggrieved by the head of the fire department’s interpretation, order, requirement, direction or failure to act under the provisions of this section, may, within forty-five days after the service of notice thereof, appeal from such interpretation, order, requirement, direction or failure to act to the automatic sprinkler appeals board as provided in section two hundred and one of chapter six. The board may grant a reasonable waiver from the provisions of this section or may allow the installation of a reasonable alternative or modified system of automatic sprinklers upon reviewing the characteristics of buildings that have architectural or historical significance.

There are two important aspects to this M.G.L.: (1) all buildings exceeding more than 7,500 gross square feet (except for specific exemptions discussed in more detail below) are required to be sprinklered; and (2) this requirement is subject to the enforcement of the head of the fire department in the municipality where the building is located (similar to M.G.L Ch. 148 S. 26A and 26A½ discussed in Part 1 of this blog series).

The methodology for determining the “gross square footage” of a building is specified by the language of the M.G.L. and differs from other common methods of determining the gross square footage of the building.  In particular, in determining whether a building is subject to compliance with M.G.L. Ch. 148 S. 26G, credit is not given to subdividing a building via fire-resistance-rated construction.  Rather, the gross square footage of the building is determined irrespective of such interior fire-resistance-rated subdivisions.  As a practical example, a building addition might be constructed with a fire wall to separate it from the existing building for the purposes of resolving allowable area issues in accordance with 780 CMR.  While such a fire wall would qualify the addition and the existing building to be treated separately for these purposes, the buildings would still be subject to the provisions of M.G.L. Ch. 148 S. 26G based on the aggregate area of the addition plus the existing building.

There are specific exemptions identified in M.G.L. Ch. 148 S. 26G where the installation of automatic sprinkler systems is not required, as listed below.  These specific buildings / conditions do not require the installation of automatic sprinkler systems based on M.G.L. Ch. 148 S. 26G, regardless of the gross square footage of the building; however, it is important to note that automatic sprinkler protection may still be required in accordance with the provisions of other governing codes and standards (e.g. 780 CMR).

  • Buildings where sufficient water and water pressure do not exist to support the installation of an automatic sprinkler system. It should be noted the determination of whether “sufficient water and water pressure” is available will be at the discretion of the head of the fire department and may not hinge solely on whether the installation of sprinklers would require a fire pump and/or water storage tank.
  • Buildings where the discharge of water would be an actual danger in the event of the fire, and where the head of the fire department has approved alternative fire suppressant systems.
  • Rooms or areas of a telephone central office equipment building when such rooms or areas are protected with an automatic fire alarm system.
  • Open-air parking structures, as defined by M.G.L. Ch. 148 S. 26G. Similar to the definition of gross square footage discussed above, what constitutes and “open-air parking structure” is defined by M.G.L. Ch. 148 S. 26G and differs slightly from the 780 CMR definition of “open parking garage”. Specifically, to qualify as an open-air parking structure under M.G.L. Ch. 148 S. 26G, at least 25% of the total wall area is required to be open to atmosphere at each level; while, a structure is only required to have 20% of the total perimeter wall area of each tier open to atmosphere to potentially qualify as an “open parking garage” under 780 CMR.
  • Buildings or additions used for residential purposes.

Lastly, in existing buildings that exceed 7,500 square feet in gross area and are undergoing renovations, M.G.L. Ch. 148 S. 26G would apply when the renovation constitutes a “major alteration”.  The language of M.G.L. Ch. 148 S. 26G does not define what is considered a “major alteration” but based on historic application of the law, this determination should consider both the nature of the work (e.g. does the scope and extent of the work facilitate the installation of sprinklers) and the cost/benefit of the installation of sprinklers (e.g. cost of the alteration compared to the value of the building).  Ultimately, the head of the fire department will make the final ruling on whether a specific project is to be considered a “major alteration” which would trigger compliance with M.G.L. Ch. 148 S. 26G and should be consulted early on in the planning and design phases of such renovation projects in unsprinklered or partially sprinklered existing buildings.