Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Partly Cloudy Day 59° Partly Cloudy

This column reflects the opinion of the writer. To learn about the differences between a news story and an opinion column, click here.

Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Brian Schaeffer: Many fire tragedies are preventable, Spokane needs to take steps to improve safety

By Brian Schaeffer Spokane Fire Chief

The United States has suffered a significant loss of life from fires in multifamily housing in just the first two weeks of the year. These two incidents are responsible for claiming the lives of at least 31 people and injuring more than 60 others.

The first fire occurred at a public housing rowhouse in Philadelphia on Jan. 5 and claimed the lives of 12 people, including eight children. The second fire occurred Monday in New York City, killing 19 individuals. Another 63 were injured, some of them critically, and the tragic consequences may increase in the days that lie ahead.

When disasters occur, I will often get the question, “Can this happen here?” from our local media or elected officials. In this case, the solemn answer is yes, and here is why.

The first incident was in a Philadelphia multifamily row house of the same construction type found throughout Spokane. The building is owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority, responsible for periodically inspecting the structure for compliance with codes and regulations. The most significant loss of life occurred in one apartment where 12 people stayed. The smoke alarms were supposed to be hard-wired to notify the entire building if a fire was detected. However, the smoke alarms in the unit where the fire started were only battery-operated and not functioning.

Heavy occupancy in small apartments and living units is common in Spokane, especially during the holidays or periods of bad weather. Hard-wired and interconnected smoke alarms in these buildings were not required by code before 2004. Single station and multiple-station interconnected smoke alarms, the most common types in Spokane, only notify the individual apartment occupants where they are installed, not other occupants in the building. Sadly, the SFD has not had the personnel available in the Fire Prevention Division to inspect multifamily occupancies since before the layoffs in 2004.

With support from the community through our elected officials, we are adding five additional deputy fire marshals to inspect multifamily buildings on an annual basis in 2022. Additionally, we are pursuing code changes that will require retroactive full fire alarm installation in multifamily occupancies greater than five units. This retroactive requirement would allow all occupants to know if a neighbor’s apartment has an active smoke alarm and use this valuable time to get out of the building, unlike the tragedy in Philadelphia.

The second fire incident occurred in a 19-story apartment building in New York without fire sprinklers. Despite the fire originating on the second and third floors of the building, firefighters kept it from extending past the unit and the hallway nearest the apartment. Their efforts were heroic; nonetheless, 19 people died. Firefighters reportedly treated over 60 injuries – most critical and related to smoke inhalation. Smoke is unburned fuel and contains toxins that can kill humans in minutes. The smoke generated from this fire quickly escaped through an open door and spread throughout the 19-story structure and is responsible for the tremendous loss of life.

The factors that caused the loss of life are not unique to New York. For example, the fire code adopted in Spokane requires self-closing doors to protect occupants from smoke, but they are often locked open for convenience. The presence, maintenance and integration of rated fire doors within a fire protection system should be mandatory – regardless of the age of the building. Fire doors can help control the spread of a fire, and the New York incident shows the devasting consequences of not using them.

Only one technology could have prevented the deaths, injuries and trauma to the firefighters and families: fire sprinklers. According to the National Fire Protection Association, the first automatic fire extinguishing system was patented in England in 1723. Around 1852, the first fire sprinkler system was introduced in the United States. We have had this technology for several generations, and people continue to die from preventable fires every year.

Congress passed the Federal Fire Safety Act in 1992, requiring newly built multifamily housing units to have fire sprinklers. However, the law did not require building owners to install fire protection systems in existing structures. The consequences of narrowing the law to new construction are predictable – people will have a higher fire risk and possible death in buildings built before the requirement for fire sprinklers. In Spokane, many of our apartment buildings, high-rise buildings, public facilities, places of worship and offices that remain unprotected and just waiting for a disaster.

Our community has suffered from the impacts of urban structural fires for several generations. We continue to lose our community members – six died in Spokane fires in 2021 – and lose firefighters. The most frustrating aspect of the fight is that almost every life we lose is entirely preventable. The city of Spokane can adopt Appendix M of the International Fire Code that retroactively requires fire sprinklers to be installed in our high-rise buildings. The federal government currently has tax incentives for installing these fire sprinkler systems, including a full cost tax deduction for the system’s first tax year through 2022. There are considerable tax advantages through 2026. We are pursuing this opportunity for the community.

Lastly, the Spokane Fire Department is heavily invested in the Community Risk Reduction model to build the highest level of safety for Spokane and our visitors. CRR relies on identifying and prioritizing risks, threats and hazards, followed by implementing and evaluating strategies to lessen their impact. You will hear more this year as the organization grows in numbers, but the brief focus is on five main areas:

• Education

• Engineering

• Enforcement

• Emergency response

• Economic incentives

The Spokane Fire Department is collaborating with city leaders, businesses and community members help us build resiliency, preparedness and response to any emergency with the protection of life as our compass. Saving lives through proactive action within a Community Risk Reduction framework aligns with who we are and clearly is the future of the fire service in Spokane.

Thank you for your support of us and our mission as we enter a safer year for our community together.

Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer as served with the Spokane Fire Department since 2005.

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

Local journalism is essential.

Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.

Active Person

Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox

Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.