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Monday, August 21, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Subsidized senior housing often lacks fire sprinklers

Seattle Times staff reporters

Last month fire and smoke swept through the upper floors of the Four Freedoms House retirement home in Seattle, sending one senior citizen scurrying onto a seventh-floor ledge, while others had to be coaxed down Fire Department ladders to safety.

Two residents, David Erickson, 67, and Ione Henry, 88, died as a result of the blaze.

The 302-unit subsidized building had no sprinklers in its apartments and hallways. In Seattle, many low-income seniors live without the safeguard of sprinklers.

A Seattle Times review found 34 publicly subsidized buildings that house mostly seniors and operate legally without sprinkler systems. That amounts to 3,764 apartment units.

The Seattle Housing Authority owns 27 of those buildings, all high-rises. Seattle Fire Department records show seven other subsidized retirement homes without sprinklers.

Some City Council members say changes, such as mandatory sprinklers, may be needed to prevent fires in senior housing. But they worry that such a requirement for older buildings could cause some senior-home owners to close or sell their properties because the sprinklers would be too expensive to install.

Although tragic, Seattle Fire Chief Gregory Dean says the fire at Four Freedoms House doesn't warrant sweeping changes. Sprinklers may not have stopped that fire, he added, and sprinklers don't provide foolproof protection.

"The issue is not as simple as it seems," said City Councilman Peter Steinbrueck, chairman of the council's land-use committee. "It warrants a lot of forethought before jumping into some new mix of rules."

Sprinklers are required for all nursing homes — new and old — in Washington state. They have also been required since December 1990 for all Seattle residential buildings taller than two stories or with more than five units.

They are not required for older apartment buildings, including independent-living senior homes such as Four Freedoms, which opened in 1967.

Still, seniors are generally considered vulnerable to fires because they're less mobile than most tenants and more prone to mental lapses such as leaving food unattended on a stove, the cause of the July 30 fire at Four Freedoms House. That's why some senior homes have installed stoves with timers or allow only microwaves.

Low income, higher risk

City Councilman Tom Rasmussen says he is particularly concerned about low-income seniors. While more-affluent seniors can afford to live in newer retirement homes with sprinklers, he said low-income seniors often are relegated to older subsidized housing without sprinklers, such as the Four Freedoms House in Bitter Lake.

Several providers of affordable senior housing say mandatory sprinklers could pose a financial hardship when it comes to buildings such as Four Freedoms House, which is owned by a nonprofit group and relies on public subsidies. Monthly rents there average $432, said Virginia Merceri, administrator at Four Freedoms House.

The owners of Four Freedoms House have considered installing sprinklers but found the cost — recently estimated at $500,000 — beyond their means, Merceri said. Four Freedoms has been hit by three other fires since 1993. One set by serial arsonist Paul Keller killed three residents.

The Seattle Housing Authority, which is renovating 23 of its older high-rises, said it looked at adding sprinklers but also found it too expensive.

"We charge our residents 30 percent of their monthly income for rents and utilities. It just doesn't work very well to say, 'Pay 40 percent because we're going to sprinkler your building,' " said Housing Authority spokeswoman Virginia Felton. "It's not that we wouldn't like to; we just don't have a source of revenue for it."

It's crucial that any proposed sprinkler requirement come with a funding source, housing providers say. If not, some senior housing might be forced to shut down.

The federal government used to have a low-interest loan program that helped with improvements to older retirement homes, but the program ended in 1997 for lack of funding. Council House, a subsidized 160-unit retirement home on Capitol Hill, tapped that program, called Flex Subsidy, for a $2.2 million loan for sprinklers.

"We just felt it was so important to have sprinklers, and the Flex Subsidy was easy money," said Mark Mullen, former administrator at Council House.

Four Freedoms House received $1.2 million from the program in the 1990s. It used $380,000 for fire-safety equipment including new alarms, detectors and an emergency generator. The rest went to repair the building's exterior and roof, according to federal records.

Can't fault decision

Merceri didn't work at Four Freedoms at the time, and she couldn't explain the former administrator's reasoning for not installing sprinklers. "I don't think it's fair to say, because they didn't choose sprinklers, that was an incorrect decision at the time," she said.

Dean, the fire chief, says the city has generally changed fire-safety rules based on trends, not a single fire or multiple fires at a single property.

City officials recently mandated sprinklers at covered marinas, but only after 36 fires broke out at different Seattle marinas over five years, Dean said. That was considered a trend.

Saying sprinklers might not have extinguished the fire at Four Freedoms House, Dean said a large fire can overrun a sprinkler system in certain situations. Sprinklers work best when they're directly above the source of a fire and can douse the flames at an early stage, he said.

"Should we look where we have seniors living throughout the city and require they all have sprinklers? We have not seen a trend in apartment houses having a large number of fires," Dean said.

Seattle isn't the only city without a sprinkler mandate for older buildings. Portland doesn't require older senior housing to be retrofitted with sprinklers, and Jim Schwager, that city's fire-protection engineer, said he couldn't name a U.S. city with such a requirement.

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.com

Sharon Pian Chan: 206-464-2958 or schan@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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