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Some apartments do not want to put in required fire alarms

EVERETT —  City fire marshals have made pro-gress in getting apartment complex owners to comply with installing fire alarms, but owners at half the older properties identified as needing alarms are trying to attain exemptions to avoid the requirement.
The Bluffs Apartments fire on New Year’s Eve 2015, in which one resident was killed, 15 were hurt and 200 were displaced, was a wake-up call for the Fire Department. The Bluffs lacked fire alarms, and it turned out that many Everett apartment complexes didn’t have them, either.
By that spring fire marshals inspected 26 apartment complexes and found 19 were missing fire alarms.
Five of the 19 without fire alarms didn’t meet the criteria to require them, the city said, leaving a list of 14.
Today, out of that list of 14, three now have fire alarms, including The Bluffs Apartments; four more are in the process to add alarms.
Seven sites have sought exemptions to not have to retrofit fire alarms.
The seven complexes seeking exemptions are the Beverly Hills Apartments, the Village by the Lake Condominiums, the Arterra Apartments, the Shoreside Village Apartments, the Copperstone Apartments, the Beverly-Cameron Apartment Homes and the Majestic View Apartments, city spokeswoman Meghan Pembroke said.
The exemption requests are currently under review, Fire Chief Eric Hicks said last month.
The properties seeking exemptions run the gamut for size, from the Beverly Hills Apartments on Highway Place with 24 units to the Arterra Apartments, a complex built in 1981 on West Casino Road that has more than 100 units.
The largest site seeking an exemption is the Copperstone Apartments, a 1980 complex with more than 200 apartment units that’s located a half-block away from the Arterra Apartments and under a mile from The Bluffs.
Both the Arterra and Copperstone apartments are owned by large San Francisco-based real estate investment companies, county records show.
By the city’s policy, based from standard building code, there are exceptions from requiring fire alarms, such as if a complex does not have building corridors inside or if all the apartment exit doors are outward-facing and lead outside the building.
“The 2015 International Fire Code calls for a manual fire alarm in (apartment and condominium buildings) that have more than 16 units and are more than three stories in height,” Pembroke said, “but the fire code does not clearly define what is required.”
All of the large apartment complexes asking for an exemption are three stories or shorter, from a Tribune review of the properties.
There are ways the city can strengthen code. Fire marshals are given the right to enact stringent guidelines when the code doesn’t delineate the requirements clearly.
The Bluffs Fire changed how the Fire Department handles fire inspections.
Before becoming fire chief in January, Hicks was one of the marshals when The Bluffs went ablaze.
Last year 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.
Some property owners noted it would cost them thousands of dollars to comply, Hicks told the City Council in an overview in mid-February.
A building retrofit is an all-or-nothing job. Fire alarms can’t be put in some apartment units and not others.
A person in the retrofitting industry told this paper last year that a basic retrofit package would cost $22,000 to $30,000.
Hicks said at the time that the basics won’t do. The Fire Department is now requiring a “package” system with manual pull fire alarms, warning strobe lights in every unit, heat detectors, and a central panel which relays information about where the fire began.
The timeframe is now set at two to five years for all of the qualifying apartments to come into compliance,
from what Hicks told the council last month in a presentation.
Last year, the city had said the building owners would have to get into compliance by a tighter timeline of mid-2018.

— With archival reporting from contributor Karen Law


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