Fire hazard

January 15, 2007

Annapolis' historic district has gone up in smoke many times over its three centuries. Newspaper accounts of such fires date back at least as far as 1790, and the downtown architecture now boasts a collection of buildings that represent virtually every period since then.

Three devastating fires along Main Street in the past nine years are warning loud and clear, though, that these quaint old firetraps are going to have to be better protected or soon whole blocks may disappear.

After a decade of dithering, it's time for the City Council to adopt the solution most favored by firefighters: sprinklers that can douse a blaze before it spreads. The requirement should not be limited to new construction or renovations, but also apply to the existing structures that are most vulnerable.

The city should also revisit its shortsighted decision to close three downtown fire stations. City firetrucks can only reach the peninsula on which the historic district sits by crossing bridges. Naval Academy firefighters are often first on the scene. With the increased traffic expected from new developments in Annapolis and along its outskirts, the lack of a downtown fire station looks more and more dangerous.

A five-alarm fire in 1997 that started in a restaurant on the ground floor of a 19th-century building and also consumed several historic structures nearby - causing at least $1 million in damage - prompted the last serious debate on the sprinkler issue. But city officials bowed to pressure from building owners who protested the estimated $30,000 cost of installing the devices. Instead of requiring sprinklers, the council has offered incentives for installation in the form of low-cost loans.

But two-thirds of the historic district's structures still lack sprinkler protection, including a Main Street building that sustained $250,000 worth of fire damage last month. The building's owner had decided to install sprinklers but hadn't yet gotten around to it.

Legislation has been offered to require sprinklers on all new residential property in the city, and to tighten requirements on renovations to existing structures. A good start, but it doesn't go far enough.

Given the irreplaceable nature of these properties just blocks away from the wooden-domed State House, fire protection ought to be the best the modern era has to offer so the horrors of the past are not repeated.

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