Fire laws failing historic buildings Preservationists push more stringent rules after downtown blaze

March 02, 1998|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

The recent blaze that destroyed a 98-year-old building in Annapolis has kindled fears about the vulnerability of the city's treasure of historic buildings.

Although fires have burned parts of historic Boston, Baltimore and Ellicott City over the past two centuries, few strong laws or fire prevention systems have been put into place to protect the oldest urban structures in what were the original 13 colonies.

Nationwide, fire laws have become more stringent, but most are designed to save lives, not structures. The laws that do protect buildings focus on new structures -- not combustible historic monuments.

That leaves a good, speedy fire department and luck as the main defenses against fires that can erase centuries.

"Some of these historic buildings aren't even required to have a smoke detector," said Anne M. Fligsten, president of the Historic Annapolis Foundation. "Fire walls, fire doors, fire suppression systems aren't routinely required. A fire has free rein.

"We're hoping the city will require more stringent standards for historic building owners to avoid something like [the Main Street fire] in the future. It could have been so much worse."

Nestled together, filled with outdated wiring and constructed of wood frames interspersed with air-filled spaces, historic districts are tinder-boxes, fire specialists say.

Worse, few owners of historic buildings take on the expense of retrofitting with fire protection technology, and most city codes don't require them to.

The 184-186 Main St. blaze is a good example.

Fire investigators said an electrical spark in the ceiling above a first-floor Indian restaurant produced a flame sometime around 9 a.m. on Dec. 9. It smoldered for hours, undetected by at least 20 people in the building.

Flames climbed up wooden rafters and between the walls, fueled by oxygen in the building's open spaces. Annapolis law does not require sprinkler systems or fire walls in many old buildings, which might have prevented the spread of the flames.

About 8 1/2 hours later, thick, black smoke poured from the roof. By then, the 100 firefighters sent to Main Street could do little to save the buildings.

But this time, a strong fire department and luck did work for Annapolis. No one was injured and major buildings on either side of the fire were saved.

"It's pretty much all but for the grace of God that we don't have a huge fire wipe out our historic districts," said Al Cox, staff architect for the Department of Planning and Zoning in Alexandria, Va. "These buildings are vulnerable.

"That's why you need a good fire department and code enforcement to protect them," Cox added. He works closely with fire officials to ensure the safety of about 2,500 historic buildings in Alexandria.

Years ago, Maryland adopted the BOCA National Fire Prevention Code and Life Safety Code, the foundation for fire laws in localities. These codes require smoke detectors in all dwellings and a higher level of fire protection in most new commercial buildings, including smoke detectors, alarms and sprinklers. Localities can adopt more stringent laws.

But the codes don't apply to old commercial buildings unless: they are altered, remodeled or renovated;

the use changes from residential to commercial, or a new business moves in;

they contain hazards "inimical to the public welfare and safety."

In most cases, inspections are performed when a complaint is filed or on an "as-needs basis," said Battalion Chief George L. Ellis, Annapolis' top fire marshal. With the complaints and other duties, such as approving site plans for new businesses, the overtaxed office cannot keep up, Ellis says.

Some buildings uninspected

In the first block of Annapolis' Main Street, fire inspection records show that of five buildings, three were inspected last year, one in 1995 and one in 1984. Of those, two are equipped with at least two exits, emergency lights and fire extinguishers, two have fire alarms and one is equipped with the works, including sprinklers.

"There are some buildings here I've never been in," said Ellis, one of three city fire inspectors in charge of inspecting several

thousand buildings, including almost 1,500 historic ones. "It's unknown how many of these buildings have real fire hazards. If we were to inspect every building in Annapolis, it would take us years to go through one round

"If we were to enforce the current code on all existing buildings, probably the whole city would have to close down. It's also not economically possible."

Some officials have started looking into ways to protect old landmarks.

Since the Main Street fire, Del. Virginia P. Clagett, an Anne Arundel Democrat, has introduced legislation offering property tax credits to businesses and homeowners to encourage installation of sprinklers.

The Annapolis city council recently passed a resolution to create an 11-member commission to study fire safety standards in historic buildings in other cities.

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