POSTED ON JANUARY 7, 2009:
Sprinkled to Death
New fire safety codes may be doing more harm than good. Balance is not something you can put off on the fire chief, Ms. Mayor. It's politics, which is your job
When a fire threatens to consume a building, you call the Fire Department.
Whom do you call when the Fire Department's good intentions threaten to destroy dozens of historic buildings in downtown and midtown?
A few years ago, officials from the Tulsa Fire Department (TFD) succeeded in convincing elected city officials to adopt a tougher fire prevention code.
The new code is the 2003 International Fire Code (IFC) -- one in a set of several volumes of rules developed by the International Code Council (ICC), a non-profit founded 15 years ago "developing a single set of comprehensive and coordinated national model construction codes."
Tulsa's adoption of the IFC is found in Title 14 of Tulsa Revised Ordinances, which adds 20 pages of local customizations -- deletions and additions recommended by Fire Department officials to tailor the code to meet local policy. (Because the IFC is under copyright -- the ICC makes its money by selling copies of its codes in burnable book form -- you can't see the full text of the code online. The city can only publish its modifications.)
When the new code was first proposed, owners of high-rise buildings -- about seven stories or taller -- sounded the alarm about the high cost of remodeling a compliant existing building to comply with the new rules. In 2006, property owners won an exemption for high-rise residential buildings, and in May the Council approved an additional 10-year period for high-rise commercial buildings to come into compliance.
High-rise residential building owners and condominium owners have since discovered that in lieu of sprinklers, they still have to undergo costly renovations to close off any wire ways, ducts, or other connections (called "chases") that could allow fire to spread between floors of their buildings.
Now owners of small apartment buildings -- as small as three stories -- are learning that they are required to add sprinklers and/or massively remodel in order to comply with the new code. The Fire Marshal's office has been going around notifying these building owners that they must comply by the end of this year or face penalties for fire code violations.
This ought to worry preservationists, advocates for affordable housing, and anyone who believes a growing downtown population is a key to revitalization.
Brick mid-rise apartment buildings are sprinkled around midtown Tulsa neighborhoods. Despite rampant demolition for parking, some remain in downtown Tulsa as well. They're typical pre-World War II urban residential development. They coexist nicely with single family homes in neighborhoods like Swan Lake and Riverview.
These buildings make it possible for people with a variety of incomes and space needs to enjoy living in central Tulsa, often within walking or cycling distance of work. These low-rise apartment buildings are an important component of the revitalization of central Tulsa, an area that lost half of its population over the last half century.
The concern of fire prevention advocates is understandable. Anyone who has had to rush into a burning building to rescue a child, anyone who has worked with burn victims, anyone who has had to recover bodies from a fire scene naturally wants to do everything he can to prevent fires from occurring.
In an ideal world, every room in every building would have automatic fire suppression. Sprinklers would douse fires before they have a chance to spread. Lives and property would be saved.
But that ideal world comes at a cost, and it's important to balance safety against impact on public and private finances and other matters of importance.
Of course, we'd be even safer if no one could have matches or fireplaces or gas stoves or electrical wiring, but common sense dictates that we accept a degree of risk to enjoy certain comforts and conveniences.
We'd all be safer if none of us rode around in internal combustion vehicles, but they enable economic development and personal convenience and freedom that would otherwise be unattainable. As a society, we've developed safety standards for vehicles, but we've taken vehicle cost, fuel consumption, and convenience into account. When new standards have been adopted, vehicles already on the road have been "grandfathered" in -- granted an exemption.
Typically, new building and fire codes contain a grandfather clause as well: As long as a building was up to code when it was built, it would continue to be in compliance.
In 2001, the city adopted the International Existing Building Code to make it more affordable to reuse older buildings. If you weren't doing a full-scale renovation of a building, you didn't have to bring the building fully up to current code.
This time there's no grandfather clause -- full compliance to the new code is required by January 1, 2010.
Many of these midtown apartment buildings are already on the margins of economic viability. Owners of buildings within the Inner Dispersal Loop are already dealing with an exorbitant assessment to pay for a ballpark on the other side of downtown that will add little to the value of their property.
The cost of adding a sprinkler system or other significant renovations would have to be passed on to tenants or absorbed by the landlord. That may mean displacing current residents for people who can pay higher rents. Or the landlord might opt for the instant property tax cut -- tear the building down for parking.
The central stairways in these buildings add security by giving all tenants better awareness of what's happening in the building, up and down stairs as well as across the hall.
These apartment buildings were constructed before central air conditioning, and so they had features like transoms to allow for energy-efficient breezes to circulate air and keep temperatures pleasant. The same brick that limits the impact of fire also provides thermal mass to moderate temperatures.
If the fire professionals had their way, the central stairways would be fully enclosed and the transoms would be nailed shut, to prevent fires from spreading from one floor to another.
I'm told that Mayor Kathy Taylor has e-mailed Fire Marshal David Dayringer and asked him to take a balanced approach to enforcement. Balance is not his job. His job is to enforce in a fair and consistent way the code that has been approved by the City Council and the Mayor -- the elected representatives of the people of Tulsa.
Balancing concerns is the job of those elected officials. The Mayor and Council responsible for considering the trade-offs between perfect fire safety and other goals and objectives of city government.
It's the role of the Mayor and the City Council, as our elected representatives, to determine the proper balance between fire safety and other goals, like central city revitalization, historic preservation, and affordable housing.
Elected officials like to hide behind the decisions of bureaucrats. They will be tempted in this case to shrug their shoulders and defer to the experts. That would be an abdication of their responsibilities.
As was done for high-rise residences, these mid-rise buildings should be granted an exemption from the sprinkler requirement. Instead, common sense measures aimed at preventing injury and death should be enacted -- required smoke alarms, for example.
At the very least, mid-rise building owners should be granted the same 10-year phase-in period as high-rise commercial owners and the same kind of financial assistance that the city has provided for buildings that are being converted from office to residential use.
In the future, the mayor's office ought to be required to perform an impact analysis of proposed code changes. Someone outside the department proposing the change needs to evaluate the affect it will have on other city objectives.
We say we want to keep downtown from becoming an even bigger parking lot. We say we want people to move back to central Tulsa. We say we want central living to be attainable to a variety of income groups, not just the very wealthy.
Imposing the new fire code on mid-rise residential buildings works against all of those goals. The Council and Mayor should take steps now to reintroduce common sense alongside the laudable goal of protecting lives and property.
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