Many Everett apartments complexes lack fire alarms
Doug Ramsay photo, dougramsayphoto.photoshelter.com
Everett firefighters battle a three-alarm fire that ripped through a three-story apartment building at the Bluffs Apartment complex on West Casino Road on Thursday, New Year’s Eve that left one person dead and 12 others hospitalized. Over 90 firefighters from as far away as Mountlake Terrace fought the fire, which was first reported just after 7:15 p.m.
EVERETT — New mandates from the Fire Department to make apartment complexes add fire alarms are sweeping Everett. At least 19 apartment buildings across the city do not have the appropriate fire alarm systems.
But just as the halls at The Bluffs apartments were initially silent for lack of a fire alarm system alerting to the rapidly spreading fire in the building on New Year’s Eve, there has been silence for several years on whether The Bluffs and similar complexes are following a 2007 code to have a fire alarm system.
There were 15 injuries and one death in The Bluffs fire, which displaced more than 100 residents.
The Fire Department is now identifying properties similar to The Bluffs in age and size and is inspecting them. Of 26 apartment complexes inspected so far, 19, or 73 percent, were found missing required fire alarms. Another 30 to be inspected may increase the number of violators identified.
Robinson reported that the Fire Department performs 4,300 fire inspections a
year on approximately 1,700 different structures, but commercial buildings like The Bluffs were inspected every other year due to the number of staff available and the workload.
That practice is changing, Fire Marshal Eric Hicks said. Large complexes like The Bluffs will be inspected annually and building
owners will have 90 days to get a permit to install the alarms. The extra workload will be handled by pulling
fire department staff currently assigned to community engagement duties.
“We have to do this and this is what we’re going to do,” Robinson said.
When asked point-blank by KIRO television on what fire inspectors checked for, Hicks said they did not check for fire alarms. Instead, fire safety inspection practices involved “things like checking for fire extinguishers and blockage of stairwells,” he told KIRO.
In other words, fire inspections didn’t include checking for a mandatory fire alarm system.
Since the 2007 fire alarm regulation went into place, The Bluffs apartments were inspected at least three times.
If a fire inspection uncovers an issue, “we work with the owner of the building, on-site, to correct what’s wrong, then notify them by letter if something can’t be fixed right then,” Rick Robinson, now one of the department’s assistant fire chiefs, said at the City Council’s Public Safety Committee earlier this month.
Management at the Bluffs have agreed to install fire alarms, but did not give a date as “the construction is still not complete” on the burned units, said The Bluffs’ Community Manager Fernando Ramirez, who is a new hire. His predecessor as well as The Bluffs’ former executive director were fired when their treatment of tenants was uncovered in the aftermath of the inferno.
According to the current practice, nine months can pass before a required fire alarm system is installed. Property owners have 90 days to apply and get a fire alarm permit from the city’s permit services division, then they have half a year to install the alarms.
Property owners who remain non-compliant are sent to a hearing examiner who may, depending on the circumstances, even extend the deadline.
With the fire department doing what it can by conduct-ing a new round of fire inspections, city spokeswoman Meghan Pembroke said keeping up-to-date on fire code requirements is the responsibility of apartment building owners.
The apartment building owners who are mandated to put in the fire alarms can expect to lay out significant money for the install.
Brian Wise, owner of Synapse Technology, an area fire alarm supplier, estimated a price range of $22,000 to $30,000 for the basics.
“Retrofitting an older building is going to be extremely costly,” Wise said. “You have to remove sheetrock and expose panels because it’s a hardwire system.”
According to Hicks, the basics won’t do. The Fire Department is now requiring a “package” system with manual pull fire alarms, strobe lights, heat detectors, and a central panel which relays information about where the fire began.
The good news is that once an alarm system is put in, the central control panels are typically monitored and tested on a regularly basis by the installation company by contract, said Lisa Sieloff, a marketing manager for Evergreen Security, of Everett.
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