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Fire Safety Remains an Important Issue in 2018

Property Fire Safety

Because apartments fires have gained national, and sometimes international, media attention, concerned citizens and advocates alike are calling for fire safety mandates and pushing this issue to the forefront of policymakers’ agendas. Recent proposals are problematic as they would have unintended consequences on the availability and affordability of housing. Below is an overview of fire safety proposals to watch in 2018.

Sprinkler Mandates

One high profile condo fire spurred the Honolulu City Council to consider a proposal from Mayor Kirk Caldwell that would require sprinkler retrofits for all existing residential buildings. The fire, which resulted in 3 deaths, gained media attention because the multistory building lacked sprinklers and had no emergency exit plan to guide residents, many of whom were disabled and r assistance. The mayor’s proposal addressed a growing need given that in Honolulu, many retirees live in older condo and apartment communities built without sprinklers. 

While well-intentioned, the proposal has its detractors, including the likely beneficiaries of the proposal. During council meetings, local seniors testified in opposition to the bill as retrofitting these buildings would cost about $40,000 per unit. Those who testified said they are already on a fixed income and, if passed, this legislation would result in an increase in rent or require each condo owner to take out a loan to cover the cost.

In light of these concerns, the council approved an amended version of the bill in a 9-7 vote on January 31. The newest version requires existing high-rise residential buildings not protected throughout by an automatic fire sprinkler system to be subject to building fire and life safety evaluation code assessments, which consist of a review of building safety features and fire protection systems in accordance with the fire code and the building code. Also, the bill, as amended, allows for covered buildings to opt out of the automatic fire sprinkler system requirement for individual dwelling units; provided that, a majority of unit owners vote to opt out of the requirement within three years of the completion of the building fire and life safety evaluation. The bill remains in process.

Online Reporting of Fire Code Violations

Given that in the Information Age, calls for transparency abound, activity in neighboring Canada may gain attention in the United States. In Toronto, residents of high-rise buildings can now access an online portal, launched by the city and Toronto Fire Services, to review the results of fire inspections of the buildings in which they reside. Tenant advocates pushed for the city to adopt this measure.

Advocates may find this approach appealing, but the availability of limited public information would paint an inaccurate picture of affected apartment owners.

Apartment Construction Fire Safety

In Massachusetts, local governments look to restrict the use of wood framing in new construction in light of several construction site fires last summer. To curtail these efforts in Boston, the National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA), worked with the city, to create a training program for construction workers on the importance of safety protocols at construction sites. The NFPA/City of Boston program points out common causes of construction fires and how to prevent them, like regularly removing garbage from the site and ongoing communication during potentially dangerous construction activities.

The training program was developed after an apartment construction fire resulted in the death of three firefighters. Developers blamed the construction site blaze— which occurred just before sprinklers were scheduled to be connected— on human error. The educational program is a good alternative in jurisdictions that are considering prohibitions on certain building materials, which would have a significant effect on the cost of construction that would be offset by increases in rent.

For more information on these proposals and other fire safety related issues, contact Holly Charlesworth, Manager, Government Affairs at NAA.