15 complexes in S. Snohomish County lack required fire alarms

EVERETT — A survey of large apartment complexes in south Snohomish County has found 15 that are missing the required fire alarms.

Fire District 1 and the county Fire Marshal’s Office have been sending letters to the owners saying the apartment and condominium complexes must be brought into compliance.

Five of the properties are in Edmonds and five are in Mountlake Terrace. The others are in the unincorporated areas of Fire District 1, which is based along 128th Street SW and serves most of urban southwest county.

No violations were found in Lynnwood, Brier or the rest of unincorporated county.

The new inspections followed a similar effort in Everett earlier this year.

District 1 fire Commissioner Richard Schrock requested the inspections in July, citing Everett’s precedent. Everett checked all of its large complexes after the fatal blaze at the Bluffs apartments along W. Casino Road on New Year’s Eve 2015. The Bluffs and 16 other apartment complexes in the city were found to be lacking the necessary fire alarms. Those are the kinds where someone can pull a lever.

Schrock wrote his fire chief that he did not want to “learn of a code violation only after a major fire loss.”

“The Everett fire obviously piqued everybody’s interest in that issue,” said Tod Gates, an assistant chief and fire marshal with the Lynnwood Fire Department and Fire District 1. Lynnwood and the district are sharing leadership as they explore a merger.

In Everett, it still could take up to five years to get every complex into compliance, Fire Marshal Eric Hicks said. The price of the retrofitting for property owners can run into the six figures. The Bluffs owners are nearly done with adding alarms to all of their buildings, Hicks said.

At a public meeting on Casino Road in September, Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson brought up the fire alarm checks in response to questions from social service organizations about living conditions in the neighborhood.

“We’re holding those landlords accountable to get that cleaned up,” the mayor said. “We’re being very assertive in that regard.”

Farther south, Fire District 1 is looking at a timeline of six months to three years, Gates said. It depends on the size of each building and the construction style, he said. At least three of the property owners in Edmonds and Mountlake Terrace have responded to the letters so far.

With some exceptions, the alarm requirements apply to any dwelling with at least four stories or 16 units.

Fire District 1 checked the large complexes in Brier, Edmonds and Mountlake Terrace, which contract with the district for fire service. The Snohomish County Fire Marshal’s Office checked more than 130 buildings throughout the unincorporated parts of the county, including District 1.

This week, County Fire Marshal Michael McCrary is sending notification letters to the five properties in violation in unincorporated Lynnwood and unincorporated Everett.

“We wanted to really evaluate how severe the problem is,” and if there is a problem, McCrary said in an interview Thursday.

He has asked the property owners to respond within 90 days.

Those five complexes all have working smoke detectors, but the detectors are not wired to communicate between units, according to McCrary’s letter. Buildings with interconnected smoke detectors can be exempt if they meet certain other rules.

A connected alarm system is supposed to provide the minimum degree of fire safety, he wrote in the letters. The violations were found in some of the county’s oldest complexes “with the least amount of fire protection,” he wrote.

Manual alarms can provide earlier warning when there’s a fire, Gates said. That’s important so people can escape before their exit is blocked, especially in multistory buildings or those with internal corridors that can fill with smoke. Smoke detectors might not be heard several doors down.

Edmonds Mayor Dave Earling has been talking with District 1 about the alarm violations in his city. The Mountlake Terrace City Council also was briefed earlier this month.

Most of the properties receiving warnings from District 1 were built before the alarm requirement was added to the fire codes, Gates said. Unlike most fire codes, the requirement is retroactive.

Expensive changes often create angst for landlords, Gates said. Condos are more challenging because they tend to be managed by boards versus a single person or a private company. At least five of the complexes in violation in south county are condos, records show.

If the property owners do not install the alarms, they could face sanctions from code enforcement or legal action.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @rikkiking.

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