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Circuit interrupters

Wisconsin fire officials are asking Gov. Scott Walker's administration to expand the use of circuit interrupters in newly built homes, a step they say would prevent fires and save lives.

Wisconsin fire officials are asking Gov. Scott Walker's administration to expand the use of circuit interrupters in newly built homes, a step they say would prevent fires and save lives.

The request comes from recommendations made last year by an advisory committee of experts. The state Department of Safety and Professional Services initially opted not to adopt that recommendation, but has not taken final action on the matter.

"In all honesty, people are most likely going to die or be seriously injured as a result," said Wauwatosa Fire Chief Rob Ugaste, president of the Wisconsin State Fire Chiefs Association, at a news conference Monday.

The DSPS advisory panel voted 9-1 last fall on a recommendation to require builders to install circuit interrupters in more places within new homes. The interrupters sense current and arcing, preventing electrical fires and electrocution. 

The Wisconsin Builders Association opposes the expansion because of the cost it would add to a new home, estimated to be about $400 or $500 for the average home. 

WBA spokesman Brad Boycks said the association feels there is not sufficient data to warrant the changes supported by the fire officials and the advisory committee.

"While the cost may seem small in comparison to the cost of a new home, it is important to remember the cumulative effect these additional regulations have on the cost of housing," Boycks said.

Regulations at every level of government add up and account for nearly a quarter of the final price of a new home, Boycks said, citing a 2016 report from the National Association of Home Builders.

"The WBA has worked for years to make sure homes remain safe and affordable for Wisconsin families, and we will continue to do so," Boycks said.

Cumberland Fire Chief Barry Kuenkel, secretary-treasurer of the Wisconsin State Firefighters Association, likened installing circuit interrupters in a home to putting airbags and seat belts in vehicles.

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Kuenkel cited Wisconsin Fire Incident Reporting System data that showed an estimated 1,070 electrical fires in the state between 2010 and 2014 could have been prevented if arc-fault circuit interrupters had been present.

"Public safety should not be a political football. We’re playing with people’s lives," said Bill Neitzel, an electrical inspector for the city of Middleton and the chairman of the advisory council that offered its recommendations to DSPS.

The committee's recommendations were based on safety standards from the National Electrical Code, Neitzel said. 

"The Department of Safety and Professional Services continues to analyze feedback from public hearings and will continue to follow the statutory process for advancing administrative rules. Once the rule package has been finalized, it will be sent to the Governor’s office for approval," said DSPS spokeswoman Alicia Bork.

Last week, DSPS abruptly abandoned plans to stop requiring that fire sprinklers be installed in apartment buildings with three to 20 units after the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported on the proposal. 

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.