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Officials say sprinklers would have confined fire; Knickerbocker building, apartment tower built before modern fire codes


Fires Monday and yesterday that damaged downtown's Knickerbocker office building and led to a woman's death in the Charles Center Towers might have been confined to single rooms had sprinklers been installed, city officials said.

But both buildings, constructed in 1891 and 1969, respectively, went up before modern fire codes took effect and are exempt from the stricter rules.

Though both lacked the protective devices, each was completely up to code and in full compliance with the law, officials said.

"My guess is that a sprinkler would have made a difference," said Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres, discussing yesterday's fire at Charles Center Towers, which was sparked by a discarded cigarette on a living room couch.

Monday's fire was caused by a faulty air conditioner.

Last night, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said he plans to study whether a law should be passed requiring buildings to upgrade to modern codes.

He introduced such a measure in 1988, but it died in committee because of concerns about cost.

"I want to reconvene a study group to revisit this question," Schmoke said at a news conference last night outside the Charles Center Towers.

Ten members of Baltimore Sprinkler Fitters Local Union 536 stood next to Schmoke and said they plan to hold a rally outside the high-rise Monday to protest the lack of sprinkler systems in Baltimore buildings.

Fire officials are unable to say how many structures in the city lack sprinklers and smoke alarms, but the buildings that burned this week are not the only ones.

The department keeps records by individual buildings and has no way to assess the extent of the problem without examining every file and counting by hand.

Of the 141 office buildings downtown, 112 were built before stricter fire regulations went into effect.

"People just don't think about it," said Capt. Theodore G. Saunders, the city's chief fire inspector. "A fire is something that happens in someone else's building. Homeowners don't use smoke alarms because they don't think they will have a fire. It's the same mentality in an office building."

Steve Hill, the division director with the federal U.S. Fire Administration in Emmitsburg, said only 2 percent of the nation's residential buildings have sprinkler systems.

He said most cities, like Baltimore, did not require older buildings to install new systems when they enacted stricter fire codes in the 1970s and '80s. "In most cases, retrofitting is considered to be prohibitively expensive," he said.

Hill said studies by his agency, which is part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, found that "there has never been a multi- ple-death fire in a building that had a properly designed and maintained sprinkler system."

Only Atlanta, Boston, Las Vegas, Miami Beach, Fla., and San Francisco require retrofitting -- which costs $2 to $4 per square foot, said John Viniello, president of the National Fire Sprinkler Association in Patterson, N.Y.

For the Knickerbocker building, with 16,000 square feet of space, the cost to upgrade could be as much as $64,000.

Ron Frank, president of Southern Management Corp., which owns Charles Center Towers, said fire damage has to be assessed before talk of installing sprinkler systems. "It is enormously expensive to retrofit a building with a sprinkler system," he said.

Building owners and tenants interviewed this week said the cost of upgrading to modern safety standards would lock struggling tenants out of downtown, where rent in buildings equipped with sprinklers and alarms can be triple those of buildings lacking such amenities.

Cathy Haggerty, executive director of a nonprofit program that helps former inmates find jobs and whose suite in the Knickerbocker was one floor below where the fire started, said she cannot afford to rent in a building with upgraded fire alarms.

Though she lost files and computers and said her agency will have to find another office, Haggerty said the owners of the Knickerbocker were made to look bad by fire officials who noted the lack of sprinklers after the fire.

"The Fire Department didn't have a kind word to say," she said. "The owners are entirely responsive to their tenants, and I've had nothing but cooperation from them. I think they've kept their property up very well."

The Knickerbocker is a Class B building, defined as structures 25 years or older that lack modern amenities such as on-site parking and up-to-date wiring. They typically rent downtown for $9 to $14 per square foot.

Class A buildings, such as the 35-story Legg Mason Tower on Light Street, are newer, have fire-safety amenities and rent for $19 to $30 per square foot.

Torres said many downtown high-rises -- such as the World Trade Center and the USF&G; and NationsBank buildings -- were built before fire codes were tightened but made major renovations that required them to install the protective devices.

"In a perfect world, we would like to see a sprinkler in every building," Torres said. "We work with what we've got. We're in an industrial city. To renovate all these buildings just isn't going to happen."

The Associated Press and contributing writer Jennifer Sullivan added to this article.

Pub Date: 2/06/99

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