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Old High-Rises Could Be Required To Retroactively Install Fire Sprinkler Systems

Joey Palacios
Texas Public Radio
Villa Tranchese is one of eight buildings deemed a high-rise without sprinkler systems.

Fire Chief Charles Hood is recommending San Antonio high-rise buildings 75 feet or taller – typically 7 stories - be retrofitted with fire sprinklers, even if sprinklers weren’t required when the structures were built. The addition of sprinklers to aging buildings would give peace of mind to some residents who live in them.

The deaths of six people last year following a fire at the Wedgwood Senior Living apartments in Castle Hills prompted the city of San Antonio to take inventory.  Officials wanted to know how many high-rises lack sprinkler systems. The Fire Department counted at least 36 built before a 1982 city mandate for buildings 75 feet or taller to have fire sprinklers (there are 12 additional buildings being looked at that may not meet enforcement criteria). There majority of the 36 are office buildings but eight are residential. 

One of those residential buildings is the 11-story Villa Tranchese on Marshall St. near San Pedro Ave.  

It’s owned by the San Antonio Housing Authority and is home to some disabled and elderly residents. The lack of sprinklers is a huge concern for 66-year-old Florence Arellano who lives on the 3rd floor. “It’s easier for me to get down, but I worry about the people up there,” she said. “How about the bed-ridden? How about the walkers? How about the [wheel]chairs?  They don’t walk anymore like they used to.”

Villa Tranchese experienced a fire five months after Wedgwood. There were no injuries but 9 units were damaged. The cause was undetermined but began on the 11th floor about 6:30 p.m. April 15th of this year. 

Wednesday Chief Hood told the city council’s public safety committee he recommends all affected high-rises, commercial or residential be required to retroactively install fire sprinkler systems during the next 12 years.  At a cost of $2-$4 per square foot, Hood understands it’s not something that can happen overnight.

“We do have those dynamics to where we just cannot enforce everyone to put sprinklers in their buildings tomorrow,” Hood said. “We understand that’s not realistic.”

Even if it’s not tomorrow, Florence Arellano would welcome the potentially life-saving sprinklers in her complex. “I think we would sleep a little bit better,” she added. “We know that there’d be something to protect us.”

The Chief’s recommendation now goes to the full city council for approval.

We asked the San Antonio Housing Authority for comment on the lack of sprinklers in Villa Tranchese, but the agency has not responded.