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San Antonio Mandates Sprinklers In All High Rises; Councilman Says City Still Not Doing Enough

Joey Palacios
Texas Public Radio
San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood addresses the San Antonio City Council Public Safety Committee

It’s been two years since the San Antonio City Council made it mandatory for older high-rise buildings to install fire sprinklers. San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood told the public safety committee this week that at least 90 percent of high rises without sprinklers will now plan to install them.

But the current ordinance, adopted in November of 2015, allows building owners and managers 12 years to comply.

First year District 9 Councilman John Courage said said that’s far too long and wants the council to revisit the ordinance.

“I don’t think it serves the public well and the people who live in high-rise complexes or work in high-rise complexes to remain unprotected for now and another ten years until the buildings are required to protect them,” he said.

Hood said while the department would like sprinklers added to all buildings taller than 75 feet immediately, that’s not always possible.

“If it was up to me it would have been done years ago,” he said. “But again, we understand after meeting with these stakeholder groups that there are costs involved. I think it’s something that we need to go back and revisit, (and) educate this council on some of the challenges of it.”

A fire at the Wedgwood Senior Living Apartments in December of 2014, killing five senior citizens, prompted much of the change, Hood said. The building in the suburb of Castle Hills did not have sprinklers. After the tragedy, a dedicated high rise inspector and inspection fee have been added.

Hood said since then more than 400 inspections were conducted in all high rises.

“I can say if it wasn’t for Wedgwood; we probably wouldn’t have high-rise inspectors; we would not have a sprinkler retrofit ordinance. ... We do not want to have another tragedy in this city,” he said.

In 2015, Governor Greg Abbott signed into law a bill that requires high rise residential buildings in Bexar County with 50 percent of its residents elderly or disabled to install sprinklers in the same time frame as the city’s ordinance. The state’s law only affects four buildings.

Three of those highrises without sprinklers are managed by the San Antonio Housing Authority. Villa Tranchese Apartments on Marshall Street, Victoria Plaza on Barrera Street and the Fair Avenue Apartments which had a fire at Nov. 17. It does not have sprinklers. Of the 262 elderly residents – many with mobility issues —. one person was injured and transported to the hospital with burns. The fire was contained to the seventh floor.

“We were able to quickly get up there and put that fire out and minimize smoke travel,” Hood said. “We were able to leave a lot of those people on the eighth and ninth floors without having to evacuate them because what we have learned from Wedgwood, taking a senior out on top of a ladder is not a good thing for their health.”

SAHA has plans to retrofit its buildings with sprinklers within four years to comply with the state law.

Marivel Resendiz, communications manager for SAHA, said it's expected to cost about $2 million for Villa Tranchese and the Fair Avenue Apartments.

"The capital improvement projects planned for Fair Avenue Apartments are full fire sprinkler and fire alarm services along with repairs to the recently damaged unit," she said. "The engineer design phase was completed at Fair Avenue Apartments on Nov. 28, and the engineering firm will submit the plans to the city within the next two weeks."

Retrofitting at Villa Tranchese is expected to start in spring of 2018. Victoria Plaza, however, will be the authority's biggest challenge.

"The rehabilitation includes expanded fire sprinklers and fire alarm services, a new electrical system, air conditioning, new flooring and new energy-rated apartment windows. The entire project is estimated to cost $10 million," Resendiz said.

The design phase for Victoria Plaza is expected to be completed in December.

Joey Palacios can be reached at joey@tpr.org or on Twitter @joeycules

Joey Palacios can be reached atJoey@TPR.org and on Twitter at @Joeycules