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Government/Politics

Castle Hills Facility Could Avoid Some Fire Codes, Will Probably Not Avoid State Scrutiny

State officials said on Tuesday that the charred Wedgwood Senior Living Center in Castle Hills, a San Antonio suburb,  and the scene of a fire that has killed six people so far and  injured several more, didn’t have to follow the same fire codes as state-regulated assisted living facilities. It did, however, have to follow state safety rules.

Federal law mandates that assisted living centers for the elderly and disabled install sprinkler systems in their buildings, but apparently, the Wedgewood high rise, though a residence for people over 55, calls itself a “senior living facility” and not an “assisted living facility.”

And based on that distinction, the building did not have to follow federal and state requirements for sprinklers. And the City of Castle Hills, unlike some other cities that have fire safety rules in place along federal and state lines, has no ordinance requiring them either. 

Robert E. Solomon, Divisions Manager, Building Fire Protection and Life Safety, with the National Fire Protection Association, a Massachusetts-based group that develops fire codes and training for members across more than 100 countries, said this fatal blaze threw a spotlight on the glaring gap in safety requirements at various levels..

“It’s really what the codes would call an apartment building, but it’s an apartment building that happens to have a lot of seniors in it, a lot of people with mobility impairments or other disabilities,” said Solomon.

 While the Wedgwood is not an assisted living center, Melissa Gale, with DADS — the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services — said there were circumstances under which the state might step in. “If we get a complaint, for instance, that residents are unable to evacuate during a fire drill, or that they need more assistance than is typically being provided at a facility, we will go and investigate,” said Gale.

Gale said her agency had not, thus far, received a complaint about how the Wedgwood was evacuated. But given the circumstances, that might just be a matter of time.

Officials said it took more than 150 firefighters and others several hours to help at least 100 people escape the thick black smoke that filled the 11-story complex.  They carried some residents to safety and used fire-trucks with ladders to reach others stranded on the top floor. However, the situation was such that all their heroic effort could not prevent a terrible tragedy, one for which people will want accountability.