Gerry and Bonnie Gibson never planned to spend their retirement installing smoke alarms in homes, but they have been helping the Red Cross do exactly that. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

Gerry and Bonnie Gibson never planned to spend their retirement installing smoke alarms in homes, but they have been helping the Red Cross do exactly that. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

Sultan couple out to save lives one smoke alarm at a time

After their son died in a fire, the Gibsons began a push to get a working device in every rental unit.

SULTAN — A Sultan couple will try again this year to push the state to be more aggressive in ensuring apartment owners put smoke alarms in their units and face consequences when they don’t.

Gerry and Bonnie Gibson are working with state lawmakers on a bill intended to boost the number of smoke detectors installed in rental dwellings and single family homes, possibly through use of incentives like a discount on insurance premiums.

The legislation, still in the draft stage, also calls for fines of up to $5,000 if there is damage or deaths as a result of a fire in a rental unit without a smoke detector.

This will be the Gibsons’ third attempt at changing state law in this arena. They began their efforts after the death of their son, Greg “Gibby” Gibson, in a house fire in Shoreline on Jan. 8, 2016. That rental house did not have smoke alarms.

Greg “Gibby” Gibson, a musician, died in a house fire in Shoreline on Jan. 8, 2016. His parents, Gerry and Bonnie Gibson, will be honored at Thursday’s Red Cross Heroes Breakfast.

Greg “Gibby” Gibson, a musician, died in a house fire in Shoreline on Jan. 8, 2016. His parents, Gerry and Bonnie Gibson, will be honored at Thursday’s Red Cross Heroes Breakfast.

“The idea here is to remedy the problem and encourage landlords to follow the law and also be held accountable when the law is not followed, all resulting in saving lives,” the couple wrote in an overview of their latest legislative pursuit.

The couple’s first try came in 2017 with a bill sponsored by Kirk Pearson, a Republican and former state senator from Monroe.

It would have required owners of commercial or residential rental properties to certify that their buildings complied with current smoke detector and fire alarm requirements. They would have provided such certification to their insurers at the time they renewed or applied for coverage. The bill did not advance out of a committee.

They took a different course in 2018. Bills introduced by Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood, and Rep. Carolyn Eslick, R-Sultan, called for creating a task force to come up with ways to curb fire deaths in rental dwellings and to better enforce state laws governing installation of smoke alarms.

The Senate passed its version 39-8 in early February but it failed to get a vote in the House.

For the upcoming 2019 session, the Sultan couple is hoping more lawmakers understand and are interested in addressing the situation.

“Every year we’ve gotten a little smarter and got more people involved,” Bonnie Gibson said. “We didn’t realize getting smoke alarms in people’s houses would be political. The whole thing is about saving lives.”

State law requires smoke detection devices be installed in dwelling units built or manufactured in this state after Dec. 31, 1980. And the same law requires them be installed in all occupied units since Dec. 31, 1981. There is a penalty of up to $200 for not complying.

Individual homes and rental units aren’t the only focus of lawmakers. Apartment complexes are a concern as well. Under international fire codes, fire alarms are generally required for any complex with at least four stories or 16 units. Exemptions exist for buildings with certain safety features, such as interconnected smoke alarms.

A fatal New Year’s Eve fire at the Bluffs apartments in Everett in 2015 spurred inspection of every large complex in the city. Firefighters found multiple properties in violation. A similar survey conducted by firefighters across Snohomish County found violations at numerous complexes in Edmonds, Mountlake Terrace and unincorporated areas south of Everett. Several of the violations have since been remedied.

Liias and Eslick said the challenge for lawmakers is finding a means of strengthening enforcement of existing law given there are not enough resources to pay for inspections of every existing dwelling unit. They also want to find ways to encourage owners of older properties to install them on their own.

“Representative Eslick and I are committed to taking action on this but exactly how we do that is complicated,” said Liias, who attended Kamiak High School at the same time as the Gibsons’ son. “We want to make sure people are not dying in preventable ways.”

Eslick stressed that it is an important policy but a difficult one to craft.

“We want to put a little more teeth into the law,” she said. “But we have to be realistic.”

In the meantime, the Gibsons have a nonprofit, Gibby Home Fire Prevention, to provide and install smoke alarms for free in Snohomish County to anyone who needs them. They said they’ve put in almost 3,000 smoke alarms since starting the nonprofit after their son’s death.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@herald Twitter: @dospueblos.

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