A cool response since Annapolis' own big blaze


November 14, 1999|By Norris West

LAURANCE Vincent wasn't thinking about sprinkler systems when he bought a building in downtown Annapolis 16 years ago and moved his clothing business there. Mr. Vincent was focused on selling his line of sportswear at the time.

He's thought about sprinklers often, however, since a five-alarm fire raged along Main Street two years ago. He thought about them again last week when a six-alarm blaze ravaged Ellicott City's Main Street.

Mr. Vincent spent $1,500 on a fire and smoke monitoring system, but the 1997 fire didn't convince him of the need to install sprinklers.

"Can I spend $50,000 to sprinkle my building?" he asked. "The answer is no."

Mr. Vincent isn't unique among property owners in the historic district who don't feel they can afford to install sprinklers, despite their effectiveness in fighting fires. That sentiment has stifled any legislative requirement for sprinklers in Annapolis. Similar objections may arise in Ellicott City.

No movement

Annapolis has done little to prevent another massive fire since the one Dec. 9, 1997 that caused $3 million in damage. A commission established after the fire issued 21 recommendations to improve safety. Mayor Dean L. Johnson recently said that Annapolis has moved on 11 proposals, but the city has not touched the most effective, and most controversial, suggestions.

The most contentious recommendation is No. 9. It would require property owners to install fire suppression devices - a.k.a. sprinklers - or monitoring and detection systems such as the one Mr. Vincent installed.

Since many Annapolitans treasure their historic district, it's hard to understand why city government resists a more forceful push toward sprinklers.

The Ellicott City blaze should remind Annapolis that old Main Streets, with wooden buildingslined cheek-by-jowl, are vulnerable. And it should remind them that fires start easily; keeping them from spreading is key.

Robey's view

Howard County Executive James N. Robey, a career public safety type as a former police chief, didn't mince words about the importance of sprinklers after last week's inferno.

"The only thing that will save (buildings) in another fire -- and let's be honest, there will be another fire -- is a sprinkler system," he said after surveying the damage in his county.

It remains to be seen whether Mr. Robey will follow up his strong language with concrete proposals. Or we'll have to see if Ellicott City resistence is as stiff as in Annapolis.

Annapolis Alderwoman Louise Hammond said she and her colleagues have not discussed toughening fire safety legislation recently. But she thinks the city should discuss tax breaks to help property owners pay for expensive sprinkler systems.

That's an idea worth exploring. Some might groan about public money going to help business owners, but insuring the architectural fabric of the historic district, a major tourist draw, is in the public's interest.

Mr. Vincent wouldn't mind tax credits, but he would mind a mandate. Even with tax breaks, he surmises, sprinklers would be too expensive.

`Little business people'

"We are little business people. We don't have big salaries or big profits," he said. "When you talk about the average person who owns property in the historic district, in their hearts, they want to do the right thing."

Mr. Vincent, who ran unsuccessfully as a Republican for mayor in 1993, said he was satisfied with the small steps. "Common-sense things that don't cost a lot," he said, such as not storing stacks of old newspapers.

Ellicott City boosters won't get much solace from the Annapolis example if they think getting business to install sprinklers on their own will be easy.

Norris West is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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