Major fires raise safety concerns about lack of sprinklers


Redwood City, July 7. Early in the morning, a monstrous fire swept through a 72-unit apartment building on Woodside Road. The 6-alarm fire killed one tenant and injured 21 others.

Three months later, just three miles away, firefighters fought another six alarmer at a large apartment building. This time, four people were injured.

In both cases, fire and smoke quickly filled interior hallways, blocking residents from exit paths.

Neither building had sprinklers

"The sprinkler system would have kept those fires in check. Redwood City Fire Marshal Jim Palisi said. "It would have confined it to the room or area or origin until we could have gone to the scene and completed the extinguishment."

The old buildings were grandfathered from a state law that requires sprinkler systems for large apartments constructed after 1989.

This was the impetus for that law -- the deadliest apartment fire in Los Angeles' history.

It happened in 1982. Twenty-five people died and 30 were injured as the fire roared through the Dorothy Mae Apartments, a building with a no sprinklers.

U.S. Census data shows that in the Bay Area, apartment buildings make up 30 percent of the housing stock. Most were built before sprinklers were required.

Building owners say retrofitting them would be expensive, costing an average $8-$15 a square foot. A 12-unit apartment building would be around $100,000.

Janan New is with the San Francisco Apartment Association.

"Life safety is paramount, but we thought that the same policy goals could be achieved by sophisticated smoke and carbon monoxide detectors," New said.

For Redwood City, Palisi is looking seriously at a more moderate retrofitting program that was approved by the city of Los Angeles for older buildings.

The Dorothy Mae Ordinance, as it's called, would be more affordable to landlords.

It's a model that Palisi says could be adopted by cities throughout the state.

"They put together a program that allowed them to look at every individual apartment building and think of ways to provide additional fire safety standards," he said. "For example, maybe have a sprinkler corridors, the exit corridors. Or maybe have a sprinkler head that's directly above a one bedroom apartment unit that's directly right by the front door."

Palisi says every little bit helps. The bottom line is that sprinklers save lives and slow the spread of fires.

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