Almost six years ago, my wife and I sold a condo that we owned on South Cheyenne where we lived for a number of years and bought a condo in a high-rise residential building downtown. My wife and I both have experience in managing tall, downtown buildings and have had extensive experience with the Fire Marshall's Office.
When we bought our unit, we both understood that the building in which it is located was built more than 30 years ago and was not fire suppressed. We were also aware that our new home had been converted from an apartment to a condo in 1997 or 1998 and that the City had issued a certificate of occupancy to the real estate developer who converted the property from an apartment complex to a high-rise condominium complex.
In 2005, I was elected to the Board of Directors of our association and was acting as temporary property manager for the property in the spring of 2005 when the Fire Marshall sent a letter to our Association demanding that we commit to installing sprinklers in the two tall buildings owned by our association pursuant to the newly adopted International Fire Code. That the City had adopted a mandate that the building in which we live be sprinkled and other similar buildings was a complete surprise.
Historically, the City had never asked tall building owners to install sprinkler systems in their buildings absent a change in use. I was aware that the basements of our buildings were sprinkled and learned that the City had required the developer to install those sprinklers as a condition of approving the conversion and issuance of the certificate of occupancy just seven years earlier.
Upon investigation, I found that no one that I could find was aware that anyone was proposing that the City enact a fire code to mandate that sprinklers be installed in the five older high-rise residential buildings all located in or near downtown. All through the summer and fall of 2005, the issue was discussed with various elected officials including Tom Baker, the then District 4 City Councilor and former Fire Chief, and various city officials including the Fire Marshall.
It became obvious to me and others that the only way to obtain repeal of the Fire Code mandate was through political action. In early 2006, I filed for the District 4 City Council seat to, among other things, put the Fire Code mandate on the public agenda for consideration.
Kathy Taylor, Maria Barnes and others concluded that compliance with the Fire Code sprinkler mandate was impossible and something needed to be done. Just before the end of Tom Baker's term, he introduced a proposed amendment to the Fire Code exempting the existing high-rise buildings from the requirement that sprinklers be installed by 2010. The owners of the various buildings thought that their problem had been solved and went about their business.
Unfortunately, early in 2007, the Fire Marshall demanded that the same buildings comply with a never-discussed provision in the International Existing Building Code first adopted by the City in 2000 relating to chases in multi-story buildings. Initially, no one seemed to know what he was talking about, but it eventually became apparent that he wanted all of the holes in the floors in the buildings through which the electrical wires, sewer pipes, water pipes, etc., ran through the buildings sealed.
When confronted about the issue outside the Francis Campbell Auditorium early in 2007, the Building Inspector, Jack Paige, claimed that he was against what the Fire Marshall was doing. The alarming thing about the Fire Marshall's demands was that compliance would cost far more than the installation of sprinklers. To prove his point, the Fire Marshall dispatched a group of the Deputies to one of the affected buildings and conducted a thorough inspection of the building and issued numerous fire code violation citations.
Failure to comply with such citations, if validly issued, could result in substantial fines and eviction of the residents of the buildings. To say that the owners of the units in the building were frightened by the Fire Marshall's behavior would be an understatement.
Three of the five affected buildings elected to try to negotiate with the Fire Marshall in an effort to avoid being forced to comply literally with the mandate in the building code. Councilor Barnes recently held a meeting at City Hall at which the Fire Marshall made a presentation and answered questions. Someone, possibly me, asked how long Section 704.1 had been in effect, and the answer was since 2000.
Jack Paige then volunteered that the BOCA Code, which was in effect before the IEBC, contained similar language.
Call to Kathy
Upon reflection after the meeting, it became increasingly clear that the Fire Marshall had decided, with or without approval of the his superiors, to exercise his authority to force the buildings, which had successfully thwarted his efforts to force the installation of sprinklers, to make various changes in their building to make them "safer." Essentially, the Fire Marshall was and is demanding tribute from the buildings as a condition of being left alone by him for now.
It is clear that the Fire Marshall decided, when he did not get the sprinklers that he wanted, to use the power vested in him by the City of Tulsa to force the owners of more than 1,000 homes to spend their money to make their homes safer, whether they wanted to do so or not. As I mentioned above, each of the affected buildings is unique in their histories and configuration.
The Sophian Plaza was built in the 1920s and converted from an apartment house to a condo by my wife's mother and stepfather in the 1970s. Central Park, where my wife and I live, was converted from an apartment house to condos in 1998 or so.
No significant change to the buildings at Central Park has been made since the issuance of the certificate of occupancy by the City to the developer in 1998. The buildings have the same holes in the same places where they have always been since they were built in the 1970s. The only thing that changed between 1998 and now is the Fire Marshall's opinion about the safety of the buildings as a place for my wife and me to live.
Compliance with the Fire Marshall's demand will depreciate the value of my home and the homes of more than 1,000 other owners of units in the affected high-rise residential buildings. Clearly, our homes will be somewhat safer places to live, but they will not be worth any more as a result of our spending our money in an effort to try to get the Fire Marshall to leave us alone to the quiet enjoyment of our homes.
The Fire Marshall admits that he knows of only one fire related death in a high-rise building in Tulsa in the last 30 years. He claims, however, that it is possible for a fire to happen at any time with the potential loss of life if the changes to the buildings that he demands be made are not made.
One must concede that our home could be made safer through the installation of sprinklers or the installation of other more extensive smoke detection, alarm and other changes that would cause a fire to be detected earlier with resulting alarms and notifications. The same could be said of every home in Tulsa, including, I suspect, your home. In fact, the Fire Marshall said that consideration has been given to seeking a mandate that all new single-family homes be built with sprinkler systems. Only time will tell whether such a mandate is ever adopted.
The Fire Marshall simply decided to start enforcing a provision of the IEBC that had never been enforced before he lost the sprinkler battle. Assuming that he signed off on the Certificate of Occupancy for Central Park in 1998, he approved the sale of the units at Central Park to purchasers from the developer. While I do not know what may have been done to the other buildings, I suspect that little has changed in them over the years. If firewalls have been breached or the floor penetrated in violation of the BOCA or IEBC codes, the violations should be corrected. Nothing of the sort has happened at Central Park since 1998.
Fire Marshall elected to exercise the power vested in him by the City of Tulsa to force the expenditure of hundreds of thousands by the owners of units in the affected buildings to make them satisfy his desire that the buildings be safer. The ordinance that he is trying to use to bludgeon us into using our resources to satisfy his demands has apparently been a part of the ordinances for a long time and has never been interpreted to require be done what he is demanding be done.
I submit the Fire Marshall has abused the power vested in him by the City of Tulsa. Absent your intervention or the intervention of the City Council or the Courts, we will be forced to spend hundreds of thousand of resources in an effort to protect our rights to live in our homes free from interference form the Fire Marshall.
We therefore petition you to exercise the power vested in you, as the Chief Executive Officer of the City of Tulsa, to protect us from the Fire Marshall.
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