Editorial: San Marcos fire raises questions about safety of renters

A knock on an apartment door at 4:30 a.m. should not be the way residents find out that their building is burning.

Yet, that is how residents of the Iconic Village and Vintage Pads apartments in San Marcos say they learned of the deadly fire that broke out around them July 20.

Last week, authorities identified four of five people who died in the blaze: Haley Michelle Frizzell, 19, David Ortiz, 21, Dru Estes, 20, and James Miranda, 23. A fifth person has not been identified.

Many questions must be answered, including if fire and smoke alarms failed and why; the cause of the fire; and steps that can be taken to mitigate future tragedies.

RELATED: Ex-residents at San Marcos apartments recall faulty smoke detectors.

San Marcos fire officials are investigating those issues. The lessons learned from this disaster could prove vital in helping to address safety challenges at apartment complexes built in 1970 or earlier, structures at far greater risk for fires that result in loss of life than residences built later.

We join other Central Texans in sending our sympathies to families of the victims and wishes for the speedy recovery of those who suffered injuries. San Marcos Mayor John Thomaides conveyed the collective grief of his city: “As a community, our hearts are broken. We’ve lost so much. We’ve lost the love, energy, optimism and potential of these young souls.”

At the center of this tragedy is whether the fire that displaced hundreds could have been less damaging. Fire prevention experts tell us the answer is yes — if the buildings had sprinkler systems.

They point to state and national data, even as they caution about the financial and political impracticalities of requiring sprinkler systems for all multifamily residences.

Jeffrey Shapiro, an Austin fire engineering consultant, cited a 2012 report by the Texas Fire Marshal’s Office that found that in the previous 10 years in the state, no one had been killed in a fire at a multifamily residential building equipped with a fire sprinkler system. By contrast, 114 people were killed by fires in apartment buildings that did not have sprinkler systems.

SAN MARCOS FIRE: 3 victims were Texas State students, officials say.

According to more recent data, 144 people died in fires at multifamily residential buildings without automatic sprinklers, from 2005 to 2016, compared with two deaths in buildings with sprinkler systems.

Nationwide, from January 2000 to May 2015, 118 people died in 85 fires in dorms, off-campus housing and at fraternity and sorority houses where there were no sprinklers, according the U.S. Fire Administration.

Experts agree that sprinkler systems save lives by attacking fires when they erupt, limiting their danger and damage until firefighters arrive. Fire alarms only provide warnings when smoke is detected. But as the American-Statesman’s Kelsey Bradshaw reported, there were no sprinklers at the San Marcos apartment complex, which was built in 1970, when sprinklers were not required.

Many Texas cities, including Austin and San Marcos, follow the International Fire Code, which stipulates that older multifamily buildings be retrofitted with sprinklers when they undergo major renovations. There are exceptions.

In Austin, San Antonio and Houston, high-rise apartments or condo complexes, typically seven or more stories high, are required by local or state law to have sprinkler systems, no matter when they were built, Shapiro told us.

Sprinklers are expensive because they often require upgrades to building infrastructure, akin to replumbing the whole building after it’s been built. The costs would have to be borne by apartment owners, taxpayers or renters. In the latter case, costs would drive up the housing prices substantially.

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The other roadblock would be the Texas Legislature. It thwarted San Antonio’s bill to require sprinkler systems for all high-rise multifamily residences in Texas, narrowing it to cover only San Antonio, Shapiro said. If cities moved to require sprinklers for low-rise residences, an influential lobby of homebuilders would marshal against it, he said.

Given those realities, attention must be given to examining why fire alarms failed at the Iconic Village and Vintage Pads apartments and how fire alarm systems can be improved.

State law requires every property to have a working smoke detector on move-in day, but tenants are responsible for replacing batteries in detectors and reporting issues to the apartment employees.

Experts told us upgrading fire alarms with newer models and requiring apartment managers to disclose when residences aren’t protected by sprinkler systems are good first steps. They advise families looking for college dorms or off-campus apartments to choose properties with sprinkler systems.

We don’t know the type of fire alarms that were in the San Marcos apartments, but such structures tend to use alarms with 9-volt batteries that are easily tampered with and regularly need replacement batteries.

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Houston requires multifamily residences to install tamper-resistant fire alarms powered by lithium batteries that last 10 years, said Andy Teas with the Houston Apartment Association.

Another affordable option is requiring multifamily residences to have fire extinguishers in each apartment, as Austin and Houston do, Teas said. Suppressing fires early can help save lives and limit damage.

As we wait for answers in the San Marcos investigation, we urge apartment owners, renters and homeowners to take steps to mitigate deadly fires. It should not come down to a knock at the door to alert people it’s time to evacuate a burning building.

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