Multiple apartment complexes in Everett lack fire alarms

EVERETT — The owners of 19 apartment complexes in Everett are being ordered to install fire alarms on their buildings. Those notifications are going out over the next few weeks.

City officials plan to inspect 30 additional complexes, Fire Marshal Eric Hicks said Thursday. The new safety campaign follows the fatal New Year’s Eve fire at the Bluffs apartments along W. Casino Road. After the three-alarm blaze, it was discovered that the Bluffs didn’t have fire alarms.

City codes require a central fire alarm system — the kind where someone can pull a lever — on any apartment building with at least three stories or more than 16 units.

The Bluffs incident “really opened our eyes to how many other buildings need to have this retrofitted,” Hicks said.

“This is going to take time,” he said. “It’s not going to happen overnight. Education goes along with this.”

The people who run the Bluffs are planning to get the alarms installed there soon. The work requires a permit and those permits usually can be processed in a couple of days, Assistant Fire Chief Rick Robinson said.

Everett-based Coast Real Estate Services manages the Bluffs through a partnership with the out-of-state owners.

Earlier this year, the property owners and Coast drew scrutiny for how tenants were treated after the fire. Coast has since fired two employees in connection with those complaints, including the former community manager, Coast CEO Tom Hoban said.

The company now has hired a bilingual community manager, a change that was requested by tenants and their families, many of whom are native Spanish speakers.

All of the families displaced by the fire — an estimated 130 people — have found new homes, Hoban said.

However, the missing fire alarms at the Bluffs triggered a decision by the city to survey every large apartment complex in Everett, in case other buildings also were in violation.

In January, the fire department identified an initial 26 complexes that needed to be assessed, Hicks said. Officials have since checked all of those properties and confirmed that 19 didn’t have fire alarms. Those owners are being notified.

A more thorough review of property records recently turned up 30 more complexes that need to be inspected, Hicks said.

He estimates it could take two to five years to get everyone in compliance. The process starts with a letter that tells property owners they have 90 days to apply for a work permit to install fire alarms. The permit then allows a six-month period for installation.

“We try to work with property owners and if we need to extend the timeline, we can,” Hicks said. “It will be working with the owners consistently and making sure we have that communication.”

Apartment owners who don’t comply ultimately could end up in front of a hearing examiner.

The survey that’s under way is different from the day-to-day building inspections conducted by firefighters.

General fire inspections focus on making sure that exits, fire extinguishers and fire hydrants are working and free from obstructions, among other issues, Hicks said. Most businesses and apartment buildings in the city are inspected every other year — some 4,300 inspections every two years. Some locations, such as hospitals and schools, are checked every year.

Since the Bluffs fire, large apartment complexes are being added to the list of mandatory annual inspections. That’s at least until they are retrofitted with fire alarms, Hicks said.

As part of the requirements, property owners whose buildings fall under the alarms code are being asked to install heat detectors in every apartment. The heat detectors can communicate with a building fire alarm system, and offer another alert to trouble. Most modern buildings have detectors in central areas that are connected to an audible alarm, Hicks said. That’s different from the smoke alarms that are installed in someone’s bedroom ceiling.

A better warning system means a higher likelihood of people escaping, Hicks said.

“It’s the bells and whistles going off early instead of waiting until you smell smoke and there’s flames at your door,” he said.

Smoke alarms inside apartments are still important, but their maintenance is the responsibility of tenants, not landlords. In general, the fire marshal can’t inspect someone’s private living space.

As the conversation continues about lessons learned from the Bluffs fire, more safety efforts are planned, Hicks said.

For example, the city and community groups are planning a family safety fair along Casino Road, likely in April. The exact date and location are being worked out. Families who attend will be able to learn about fire extinguishers, fire escape plans, smoke alarms and fire alarms, Hicks said. There also will be information about emergency preparedness and crime prevention.

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

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