After an apartment fire kills 5, a call for sprinklers

State Rep. Mohamud Noor, DFL-Minneapolis
State Rep. Mohamud Noor, DFL-Minneapolis, told a community meeting Friday in Minneapolis that it's time to mandate sprinklers in apartment buildings that were constructed before the firefighting devices were required. The meeting was held in the wake of a fire Wednesday that left five people dead.
Martin Moylan | MPR News

Updated: Dec. 4 10:32 a.m. | Originally published Dec. 3 4:00 a.m.

The deaths of five people in a Minneapolis public housing high-rise apartment building last week has renewed debate about mandating sprinklers in housing, particularly high-rise buildings constructed before building codes required sprinklers.

“Unfortunately, we have lost five lives,” said state Rep. Mohamud Noor, DFL-Minneapolis, at a meeting to discuss how to help victims of the fire. “No matter what others will say about the sprinkler requirement for housing, we will get it done.”

For decades, Minnesota has required sprinklers in new high-rise and other apartment buildings. But many large apartment buildings went up before those edicts took effect.

That includes the public housing tower in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis where the five people died. It’s about 50 years old and had very limited sprinkler protection.

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That's not unusual. The state fire marshal's office estimates only about 10 percent of apartments in Minnesota have sprinklers.

Fire truck outside high-rise building on snow-covered street
Five people were killed in an early morning fire at 630 Cedar Ave. S. last week. The apartment building is 50 years old and was not required to have sprinklers due to its age.
Tim Nelson | MPR News file

Almost 40 years ago, Minnesota started requiring sprinklers in buildings three stories or more or containing more than 15 units.

“That was a big deal,” said Scott McLellan, director of construction codes and licensing for the Department of Labor and Industry. “In the ‘80s, codes starting requiring sprinklers in high-rise buildings. And then 1990, it hit all multifamily. Everything that was constructed before that, most likely, didn't have fire sprinklers.”

McLellan said that over three decades he’s yet to see a powerful push to force owners to retrofit old apartment buildings with sprinklers. Past legislative efforts have failed.

To be sure, there would be serious political opposition now to such a mandate. McLellan said it wouldn't be cheap for landlords.

“It’s very labor intensive,” he said. “You’re going back into the street, cutting that open for a new water main, running pipe through walls that weren’t intended for it originally. So, it’s extremely expensive.”

Minnesota Multi Housing, a trade group for apartment owners, issued a statement, saying it is “very challenging to retrofit sprinklers into older buildings.”

But Noor argues it’s time to require the retrofitting of sprinklers throughout older apartment buildings.

“It’s a tragedy that many people will keep on fighting things that are simple and quite frankly would have saved lives in this incident," he said.

Many firefighting professionals also support the move, saying it’s well worth the expense.

“It costs a lot more money and a lot more lives to have a fire and not be prepared,” said Shane Gray, a retired South Carolina state fire marshal and president of the National Fire Sprinkler Association.

Gray said there’s never been a fire in the United States in a fully sprinklered building in which more than five people have died. Gray said sprinklers are highly effective in containing a blaze.

“We know the effectiveness of sprinklers, especially in high-rise[s],” he said.”Ninety-seven percent of the fires are contained to that room of origin.”

The Minneapolis Public Housing Authority has been considering adding sprinklers to older buildings. Its latest annual plan notes that “as building codes have evolved, we need to address increased life/safety requirements such as retrofitting our high-rise buildings with sprinkler systems.”

The authority has said it will make such improvements as finances permit. But the organization’s report indicates its buildings need $69 million of mechanical work, including plumbing and fire protection systems that include sprinklers.

Sprinklers are part of a $4.5 million upgrade at a high-rise at 1611 South Sixth St., near the building that had the fatal fire.

When first contacted for this story, the housing authority would not comment on the fire or the deployment of sprinklers in its buildings. The authority said it was awaiting the completion of all investigations of the fire. But the authority has since said that 16 of its 42 high-rise apartment buildings have in-unit sprinkler systems.

The St. Paul Public Housing Agency has sprinklers in all 16 of its high-rise buildings, although they are not required. The agency spent $8.3 million, starting in the late 1990s, to add sprinklers. The work was completed in 2013.

"Nothing is more important to our staff, residents and out board than safety,” said SPHA executive director Jon Gutzmann.

Most of the agency’s low-rise buildings do not have sprinklers but some 1,200 have fire suppression devices over stoves.

There have been several pushes in Minnesota to require sprinklers in single-family homes. But those efforts faced strong opposition from builders and went nowhere.

David Siegel, executive director of Housing First Minnesota, a trade group for builders, said it’s not worth mandating sprinklers, which could add $10,000 or more to the cost of a home.

“When we balance safety, durability and affordability, we don’t find data that supports a need for sprinklers in single-family homes,” he said.

He said many builders offer sprinklers as option in a new home but few home buyers chose to install sprinklers.

Only two states — California and Maryland — require sprinklers in new single-family homes.

The Minneapolis Fire Department has completed its investigation without determining a cause for the Cedar Avenue high-rise fire but believes it was accidental.