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Fire Sprinklers Lacking In Three Housing Authority High-Rises For The Elderly And Disabled

Three high-rise housing complexes owned by the San Antonio Housing Authority do not have fire sprinklers.  And there’s some concern the elderly and disabled residents living there may not be safe if there’s a fire.  Six elderly residents died after flames engulfed the Wedgwood apartments in Castle Hills last December. Fire officials said sprinklers might have prevented some of the casualties. New regulations will eventually require sprinklers in the high-rises.  For some, it’s not fast enough.

Richard Holgate has lived at the housing authority’s Villa Tranchese apartments on Marshall Street for seven years. It’s a twelve story high-rise built in 1969 without a fire sprinkler system. “It’s an old building, but it can be remodeled,” he said in the building’s front circle.

He lives on the 4th floor and is in a wheelchair.  He became concerned about safety when there was a false alarm.  “I was in my chair and I couldn’t get out,” he recalled.  “If that was really a fire I’d probably burn to death.”

Florence Arellano, who uses a walker and also lives on a lower floor, shares a similar feeling. “I like the place, it’s just the safety of [it],” she said. “How ‘bout if we have our grandchildren here at that time at that moment, at least with the sprinklers we could be under, that’d be good.”

The housing authority also owns the eleven story Fair Avenue Apartments, and nine story Victoria Plaza downtown near HemisFair. 

Each of these buildings was built before 1982 when the city of San Antonio began requiring buildings over 75 feet – about seven stories- to be built with fire sprinklers.

The three high-rises each have about 200 residents.  Most are older and three-quarters are disabled.  The Wedgwood fire was a wake-up call.

Following Wedgwood, Republican State Rep. Rick Galindo from San Antonio passed a bill requiring fire sprinklers to be installed in older residential high-rises where more than 50 percent of the tenants are elderly or disabled. He says the sprinklers should have been required long ago.  “It’s safety 101,” he said. “We’re not trying to split the atom here. A bill like this shouldn’t have to come from the state; it shouldn’t have to take somebody like us. It should have been done locally.”

Galindo’s bill gives property owners 12 years to install sprinklers. 

Richard Milk, the director of policy and planning for the housing authority, says installing sprinklers is difficult due to the high cost. “Sprinklers, we’re estimating will cost about $2 million  per building to install,” Milk said.  “that’s a substantial chunk of our annual budget.”

But San Antonio’s District 10 City Councilman Mike Gallagher wants it done ASAP. “We have to speed this process up. I know it’s expensive,” Gallagher said. “But I would ask anyone what would you do? What is the cost of one life?”

Gallagher says his office is seeking federal grants that could help gain the money needed. He’s also hoping private industry may lend a hand. In the mean time, he believes the residents are ‘absolutely not’ safe “Aand that’s why I think it we need to take action as soon as we possibly can.”

According to fire department records, each of the housing authority complexes has had three fires since 2011. Most were small and extinguished quickly. However, In April of this year, just a few months after Wedgwood, a fire at Villa Tranchese damaged nine apartments; one from fire damage and eight others from smoke and water. No one was injured.

Veronica Guevara, head of SAHA’s risk management, says one of the reasons residents weren’t injured may be the repetitive training and evacuation exercises residents go through as well as fire wardens living on each floor. “When I did go out there right after the fire, many residents were very grateful that we did the training and that they had learned a great deal and they used everything that was taught to them through the San Antonio Fire Department.”

Fire officials inspected the three complexes following the Wedgwood fire. Texas Public Radio requested the inspection reports and is waiting for the fire department to make them available.

Right now annual inspections are not required for high-rises. Chris Monestier, an assistant chief with the fire department says that will change this year for all high-rises in the city.  “We had one high-rise inspector approved in the FY16 budget process so it’s basically the full-time equivalent of an inspector and we’ll be going on an annual basis to all high-rise buildings,” Monestier said.

The Fire Department has a proposed ordinance that would also include retro-active installation of sprinklers in commercial high-rises and high-rise apartments that cater to non-disabled residents in that same 12 year period. It’s expected to be taken up by the city council. If passed it would affect 36 buildings.

Milk says the housing authority is trying to accelerate the installation of sprinklers.  Plans call for beginning the work at Victoria Plaza by the end of this year, and equipping all three high rises within six years.  In the meantime, Milk, believes the residents are safe. “I think our experience at Villa Tranchese demonstrates that the training there works,” he said. “The residents recognize it and it’s something that we have to keep doing on a continual basis.”

But some residents – and local officials –believe the training isn’t enough, and the wait for improved safety is taking too long.

Correction: This story has been edited to indicate one apartment at Villa Tranchese was damaged by fire and several others were damaged by smoke and water.