Supervisors Debate Merits of Metro Garage Sprinklers

Supervisors on the county finance committee are debating how much they’re willing to gamble on fires in two of the three new parking garages for Loudoun’s Metro stops.

Loudoun Fire-Rescue Chief Keith Brower has asked that the county install sprinkler systems in two Metro parking garages at a cost of about $3 million each. The structures were designed without sprinklers, instead relying on firefighters to respond to the scene and connect to a stand pipe in the building in the event of a fire.

But according to county staff, they would be the first garages in the Metro system to have sprinklers except for one mixed-use structure.

“It’s a little bit of a tough pill for me to swallow for his type of cost increase when we’re far exceeding what is normal,” said finance committee Chairman Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles).

Supervisor Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn) agreed that the sprinklers are “a big expenditure for what I think is an extremely, extremely small risk.”

Brower said the building itself, made from precast concrete, will not burn—although it could spall, in which extreme heat causes the moisture inside the concrete to expand and break off pieces of concrete.

“The issue is you’ve got a fuel load in there more like 10 times more than your average home, given the gasoline and the vinyl and the rubber on the vehicles,” Brower said.

He said although the chances of a serious fire in one of the garages may be low, the consequences of such a fire could be serious.

“It’s not a numbers game, in our opinion,” Brower said. “This is a risk exercise of, when it happens, what’s going to be the long-term effect, what’s going to be the hazard to our firefighters, what’s going to be the damage to the building and the downtime of a fairly busy parking garage.”

Construction has not yet begun, and incorporating a sprinkler system is not expected to delay the garages’ completion.

County Administrator Tim Hemstreet said the county can afford the project, and Department of Transportation and Capital Infrastructure Director Joe Kroboth said even with the sprinklers, money will still be left over from the garage budget.

“I don’t have a concern about the amount, given the totality of our capital budget, so it is something that we have the ability to fund,” Hemstreet said. “I do agree with the fire chief that if we ever do have an incident in a garage and we do get more than a couple of vehicles on fire, that will take that garage out of service for an extended period of time because of the cleanup and the aftermath.”

The third Metro garage in Loudoun is being built by Comstock Partners LC at Loudoun Station. According to Comstock Vice President Maggie Parker, that building has sprinklers for retail space on the first floor, and the garage above built to code, with a stand pipe.

The finance committee delayed a decision while county staff gather more information about the costs of the sprinkler system, insurance, and the prevalence of serious fires inside parking garages. The committee is expected to vote at its meeting in February.

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