If Charles Hood had his way, every street corner would have a fire station on it.
He knows that’s an unreasonable desire, he said, but he’s the San Antonio Fire Department (SAFD) chief. It’s his – and his department’s – job to want more safety measures put in place that would prevent a fire or mitigate the injuries, deaths, and damage of property that follows in its charred wake.
Short of building thousands of fire stations, SAFD staff will be proposing an ordinance to the City Council’s Public Safety Committee on Sept. 2 that would require high-rise buildings that were grandfathered into code compliance to retroactively install fire sprinklers.
There are more than 200 high-rises in San Antonio, most of which already have fire sprinklers. According to SAFD reports, this ordinance would affect at least 36 buildings in San Antonio: eight residential and 28 commercial. At least 14 more might be added to the list if they’re found to meet the high rise definition.
”You just cannot beat the response time of a fire sprinkler,” Hood said during a stakeholder meeting held by the SAFD in July. Fire trucks and hoses can typically reach single-family homes and smaller buildings with ease, but blazes in high-rise (buildings more than 75 feet) present a logistical problem for firefighters – and the people that live or work inside them.
This concept was fatally highlighted, he said, during the December 2014 fire at the 11-story Wedgwood Senior Living Apartments. Five people died in the fire and more than 20 were sent to the hospital.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that a sprinkler system would have prevented several of those people from dying,” Hood said.
The local ordinance comes in the wake of recent state legislation introduced by state Rep. Rick Galindo that applied only to Bexar County and only buildings that are populated by 50% or more with seniors, disabled individuals, or otherwise have a mobility impairment.
In San Antonio, four San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA) buildings will be effected by the bill, which gives building owners/property managers 12 years to comply – extended from six. Villa Tranchese Apartments, Victoria Plaza, Fair Avenue, and Aurora Apartments will be getting fires sprinklers by September 2027.
“SAHA has always been in support of the legislation, especially now that it gives us more time to retrofit these buildings,” stated SAHA Communications Manager Angela Johnson in an email. “Our Construction Services team has already begun identifying ways to address these safety and security improvements. For example, Victoria Plaza Apartments is scheduled for a comprehensive modernization estimated at $13 million, and will include life safety upgrades, such as sprinklers.”
The local ordinance would also carry a 12-year deadline, with certain benchmarks throughout for building owners, which could start as soon as this September if City Council approves:
- Within one year – a letter of intent to retrofit their building
- Within three years – file a compliance schedule, basically an outline for how the building owners plan on implementing the retrofit
- Within six years – set up a water supply for each floor
- Within nine years – installation of fire sprinklers on 50% of floors
- Within 12 years – complete compliance
But some developers and condo owners find the proposed ordinance too onerous and would rather be able to implement other, less expensive fire safety measures.
Robert Swartz is one of them. He is one of 51 condo owners that live in the 14-floors of 4001 North New Braunfels.
“We’re all for safety — but from a cost-benefit standpoint we’re not gaining anything,” Swartz said. “(Fire sprinklers) would be nice to have but how much do we gain for what we’re paying?”
For condo owners like Swartz, the ordinance makes an exception. Retrofits for individually owned units are optional – however, the common areas surrounding the condos would be required to have fire sprinklers.
According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), high-rise fires are on the decline and make up just 3% of total structure fires in the U.S.
Swartz and others say that there are countless ways people could retrofit their homes that could make them safer – but requiring them by law would make homeownership nearly impossible.
“We cannot, without great dislocation and expense, eliminate all risk inherent in life,” Swartz stated, and cited that the fire death rate has continued to decline in recent years
He said a contractor he spoke with estimated that the 4001 Condominium retrofit would cost as much as $500,000. Spread over 12 years with 51 people paying into the cost, that works out to about $68 per month.
Edna Geckler, a property manager with Stream Realty Partners who manages One Alamo Center, said a retrofit had already begun at the downtown office building.
“If you’re a living human being you want your building to be safe,” Geckler said. But she’s concerned about the logistics behind all these buildings undergoing retrofits during the same time. Her project has encountered several permit delays, she said, and wants to make sure the “city plans on having enough staff so that owners like mine that want to comply don’t face a lot of difficult obstacles when they’re trying to comply.”
There’s also a list of pre-approved vendors and contractors that the City works with to make the process smoother, said SAFD Division Chief Christopher M. Monestier. Preparations will be made if the ordinance goes through, and regardless if it’s approved, SAFD officials have funding in 2016 for its High Rise Inspection Program that will regularly inspect high-rises for existing life safety systems and code/ordinance compliance.
During a presentation at the meeting, Monestier said it was possible that some sort of tax rebate or fee waiver could be worked out to mitigate the costs to building and condo owners.
“That would have to be something discussed by Council,” Monestier said, adding that retrofitted building owners will also enjoy saving from insurance rates from 5-60%.
But, beyond the money, there is still a risk to life and property.
“In 2007-2011, in these four property classes combined, there were 7,700 reported high-rise structure fires per year and associated losses of 27 civilian deaths, 370 civilian injuries, and $92 million in direct property damage per year,” according the most recent NFPA data available.
“From a fire department’s standpoint, we have a very narrow look at it,” said SAFD Deputy Chief Carl Wedige. “The building owners say it’s going to cost all this money to do it. But I can not put a cost on a life.”
There aren’t any considerations for economic hardship exemptions in the ordinance, Building Owners and Management Association spokesperson John Anthis Jr. pointed out.
“It may not seem like a lot of money to you to sprinkler this building, but I’ve got a Class C building and my rental rates are (very close) to my occupancy rates,” Anthis said. “Even over 12 years, you’re going to sink me … and there’s no recourse for it.”
Wedige said that in special circumstances, the deadline could be extended by a fire marshal.
At the end of the day, we come to the same concept. In terms of fire safety, “We would love to see every building ‘sprinklered,'” Monestier said. “There are dangers in (smaller buildings), too. But the challenge for firefighters is greater (in high-rise buildings).”
The tragedy at Wedgwood “caused us to take a look at buildings in our own municipality … to try to come up with solutions to make these buildings safer.”
*Featured/top image: Wedgewood Senior Living Condominiums on 6701 Blanco Rd. Photo by Hagen Meyer.