Penalty may spur sprinkler action in Annapolis, Md.

After Black Friday fire destroys historic building, officials muse about effective incentives
Sunday, January 1, 2006

ANNAPOLIS, Md.--The second major fire in eight years has left city officials here wondering what it will take to convince landlords to install sprinklers in historic downtown buildings that, because of their age, are particularly vulnerable to fire.
The city tried a variety of carrots--incentives such as no-interest loans for the installation of sprinklers and tax breaks for renovations and restorations, and they've held workshops with owners to explain the programs--but the mayor surmised that it may be a stick that finally gets building owners to act.
"It might come down to an insurance issue," Mayor Ellen Moyer said. Asked if she thought insurance companies would hike rates for unsprinklered buildings, she said, "I expect it could happen."
In a Nov. 25 fire, no one was hurt, but the fire destroyed one building and damaged two others. Lt. Ed Hadaway, of the Annapolis fire marshal's office, said faulty electrical wiring between the first and second floors in the main fire building caused the fire. "In this instance, where the fire started in a large void space, a sprinkler would have had a positive impact on the outcome."
After a similar 1997 blaze destroyed a historic building, the city created a commission on fire safety that made some 28 recommendations. All of the 28 have been implemented.
Moyer said absentee landlords, many of whom use the upper stories of the buildings for storage, have expressed little interest in sprinklers in the past, complaining about the cost of installation.
Sprinklers are required for new construction and when major improvements are made in a property. Retrofitting existing buildings is not required. Moyer doubted whether the city could legally compel property owners to retrofit buildings. Hadaway, from the fire marshal's office, said a building would need to be deemed "inimical to life safety" to force an owner to install sprinklers. It could happen, but there's little precedent in this city, he said.
In the past, the city council has steered away from penalties for not installing sprinklers, though the make-up of the council changed significantly in December when five new members assumed seats on the eight-person council.
Moyer suggested that landlords could profit from increased demand for downtown commercial and residential space by converting currently unoccupied upper floors in historic buildings into commercial or residential use.
Those conversions, she noted, would require the installation of sprinklers.