Annapolis gets creative with fire safety incentives for businesses

Thursday, February 1, 2007

ANNAPOLIS, Md.--City officials here are disappointed with a year-old low-interest loan program designed to encourage businesses to retrofit with sprinklers. Since its inception (see "City loans $ for sprinklers" in the Jan. 2006 issue of Security Systems News), just five businesses have applied. Two installations have been completed and one business was in the loan process when it experienced a fire.
Approximately one-third of commercial buildings in the historic district are sprinklered.
"We expected more people," said Annapolis Mayor Ellen Moyer. Mandatory sprinkler ordinances often elicit complaints about expense from business owners. To address this, the city created the loan program. "We offer five-year loans at one percent," Moyer said. Banks were generally not interested in making these types of loans before the program, she said.
The loans will continue, but city officials are now exploring new options for encouraging sprinkler use, such as stricter inspections and a new sprinkler ordinance. Annapolis already has a sprinkler retrofitting requirement for businesses in the historic district that change use or undergo extensive renovations.
The district's old wooden buildings are badly in need of fire protection, Moyer said, and the city has tried many ways to get owners, many of them absentee landlords who use the upper floors for storage, to address fire safety.
In the near future, city fire inspectors will be closely scrutinizing those upper floors, Moyer said. The Annapolis historic district has had two major fires in the last nine years and two smaller fires since November 2006.
After the most recent fire, Moyer convened her professional staff to brainstorm about fire prevention. One of the ideas they came up with was "to instruct the fire inspection team, when they inspect second and third floors used for storage, to compile more comprehensive hazard reports."
Two city council members have also proposed a new sprinkler ordinance for the city that would require all new homes and renovated homes to install sprinklers. It would also extend sprinkler requirements to businesses outside of the historic district, so that all new commercial buildings and businesses that undergo extensive renovations would have to install sprinklers.
The proposed ordinance has "been introduced, it's going to a city committee to be reviewed and then there will be [one or more] public hearings," Moyer said. She expects the City Council to vote on the ordinance sometime in March.