Annapolis officials look for greater fire safety

January 10, 2007|By Nia-Malika Henderson | Nia-Malika Henderson,sun reporter

Less than three weeks after a fire scorched a downtown Annapolis business that did not have a sprinkler system, two city council members are pushing for tougher regulations.

Alderman David H. Cordle Sr., a Ward 5 Republican, introduced at Monday's council meeting a bill that would require sprinkler systems in all new homes and existing structures that switch uses or undergo major renovations. He said the requirement would save lives and reduce fire damage.

"It's a great idea because it's like having a firefighter in every room," Cordle said. "People say the drawback is the expense, but savings are realized with insurance."

According to the city's figures, cost estimates are about $7,500 for a 3,000-square-foot house.

The bill would apply to structures with building permit requests made after Sept. 30, 2006.

Prince George's, Montgomery and Carroll are among counties with similar legislation. Statewide, sprinklers are required in newly constructed townhouses and apartment buildings.

Alderwoman Julie Stankivic, a Ward 6 independent, is looking to expand on Cordle's legislation to include all commercial buildings in the historic district. Her bill, based on the 2007 edition of the National Fire Protection Association's code for protecting historic structures, would require sprinklers; the bill also would address storage of combustible materials, smoking areas and electrical wiring.

She said yesterday that she met last week with the fire chief and will spend the coming weeks talking with business owners about what might be in store.

Stankivic expects to introduce the legislation in February.

"We're just trying to come up with the right method of doing everything, and we'll probably phase it in over one or two years," she said. "I don't want it to be an extended implementation because the next fire could take out a whole block or more, and we don't want that to occur."

Alderman Richard E. Israel, a Ward 1 Democrat, is also working on legislation to be introduced in February that he says will toughen inspection requirements for buildings in the historic district.

"My colleagues are focusing on fire suppression, and I want to focus on fire prevention," he said. "The glory of Annapolis is its collection of buildings, and we've been fortunate that the fires we have had haven't been catastrophic."

Si Boettner, the owner of Chesapeake Trading Company, was getting ready to install sprinklers at his store before the Dec. 19 fire that caused $250,000 in damage. In November 2005, a fire damaged or destroyed three Main Street buildings without sprinklers.

Along Main Street, about 30 percent of the buildings have sprinkler systems, said Capt. Ed Hadaway, a Fire Department spokesman.

The building where Main Street Mini-Mart owner Cecilia Benalcazar rents space is not one of them. She said her landlord's expense of installing a sprinkler system would be passed on to her. According to city estimates, putting sprinklers in a Main Street building costs about $30,000.

"The economic hardship is only applicable to us, and it'd be nice if we could pass that along to the community somehow," she said. "But there are certain things that are good for society that we have to do. ... In general, I think it's a good idea and it would prevent future fires."

Since 2004, the city has been trying to encourage business owners to install sprinkler systems by offering low-interest loans. Five applications for $60,000 have been approved.

Benalcazar said there's little incentive for business owners to install the systems "until something like what happened a few weeks ago occurs."

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