Pointing to local tragedies and the devastating recent fires in New York and Philadelphia, Spokane Fire Department leaders plan to make a bold push this year to require hundreds of older buildings in the city to install fire protections like sprinkler and alarm systems.
“When something happens like that, we have to ask ourselves really hard questions – are we doing the most we possibly can with the resources our community has afforded us?” Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer asked.
The fire officials’ proposal would require City Council approval and is sure to meet resistance from property and business owners, who could be forced to pay to retrofit older buildings with modern safety features.
“In the case of, certainly multifamily, it is going to add a noticeable increase to the cost of housing,” said Mark Richard, president of the Downtown Spokane Partnership.
The stricter safety standards already apply to the construction of new buildings, but older buildings are grandfathered in.
The Browne’s Addition fire that killed two people last year would likely have been stamped out before it spread – if only it were subject to modern fire code, officials believe.
“I can almost guarantee you we would’ve saved lives,” said Spokane Fire Marshal Lance Dahl.
According to a report issued by the National Fire Protection Association last October, sprinklers reduced death and injury rates per fire by 89% and 27%, respectively, compared to fires in buildings without them.
Fire officials hope the city will adopt an option under international fire code requiring that high-rises – defined under city code as buildings taller than 55 feet – be retrofitted with sprinkler systems. Dahl estimated that there are between 40 and 50 large structures in Spokane that have either a partial sprinkler system or none at all.
The fire in New York City that killed at least 17 people occurred in a 19-story building that did not have sprinklers.
Fire officials in Spokane hope to expand the high-rise standard locally to include any multifamily dwelling of two units or more.
“Our perspective is that the more buildings that we can protect with sprinkler systems, the safer the public is,” said Schaeffer, who noted the changes would also improve firefighter safety.
Fire officials also hope to win code changes that would require any multifamily building with at least five units to have a full, hard-wired fire alarm system, regardless of the building’s age, that would ensure residents of one unit are notified when a fire starts in another apartment.
Regardless of age, fire officials want all multifamily buildings to be brought to the same standards as newer construction, with amenities like fire doors that automatically close in the event of a fire to prevent the spread of smoke.
The proposed changes would put Spokane on the forefront of safety regulations, fire officials said. There will be a cost to retrofitting older buildings, but they said there are federal tax incentives and other means available to help offset the burden.
“I think you have to weigh the price that you’re going to put on safety,” Dahl said.
The cost of installing sprinklers in an existing building is greater than that to include them in new construction, Dahl and Schaeffer said. But Schaeffer hopes that the Build Back Better plan will pass with incentives for building upgrades like they are proposing.
The officials wouldn’t expect the city to immediately require that every building be retrofitted and allow time for building owners to comply, with different implementation timelines possible depending on the size of the building.
“We will not disrupt or close businesses with an initiative like this one. We want to work with business and improve the level of safety for everyone, and that includes taking advantage of these opportunities,” Schaeffer said.
To get anywhere with these proposals, fire officials will need to win the support of the Spokane City Council.
Legislation has yet to be formally introduced to the City Council, but Schaeffer and Dahl said they would go through a public process.
“It’s a conversation,” Schaeffer said.
Councilwoman Lori Kinnear said “on the face of it, of course it’s a good idea,” but said she would have numerous questions about the proposal. She would like to see data on how effectively a sprinkler system slows a fire compared to a building without one. She also expressed concern about the impact the changes could have on the cost of housing.
“Is this a double-whammy – is this going to be saving lives and at the same time put people on the street?” Kinnear asked.
Councilman Michael Cathcart shared Kinnear’s concerns about the potential impact on housing costs. He also wondered if the requirements would prompt some property owners to try to sell, or if the cost of a retrofit could exceed the value of a property.
“Obviously you always have to think about life, health, safety, et cetera,” Cathcart said. “It could be that maybe you think about materials that were used when it was built and how fire-resilient it is.”
Steve Corker, president of the Landlord Association of the Inland Northwest, said he agrees with Schaeffer’s proposal in principle, but retrofitting buildings would lead to higher rents.
“The impact is going to make it harder for landlords to keep housing to serve the vast majority of people in this city,” Corker said.
Corker said the cost to install a sprinkler system could force landlords to sell their property, and the buyer would likely modernize the building further, driving up rent prices and reducing low-income housing.
If the requirement is passed, Corker said he hopes interest-free loans would be available to help landlords who cannot afford the upgrade.
Richard said property owners are already facing significant challenges from the coronavirus pandemic, as well as “exceptionally expensive” state-mandated energy upgrades they will face in the coming years.
Ultimately, he wants all interested parties at the table to discuss the proposal and all other alternatives before the council makes a decision.
“Everybody’s concerned about every human life, but I do think that something this sweeping … could have this level of financial impact not just on the owner but on the tenant and the person we’re trying to protect,” Richard said. “I think it just is reason for pause and reason for a very healthy community discussion before any action is taken.”
Schaeffer views the issue as a matter of equity, noting that older multifamily buildings are more likely to be inhabited by people of relatively lower socioeconomic status.
“If there’s a fire, they may not survive because of their status. It’s not equitable. That is one of the areas that I’m really concerned with,” Schaeffer said.
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