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Pittsburgh building owners have 13 years to install sprinklers under proposal

October 4, 2018

Pittsburgh Fire Chief Darryl Jones

Owners of high-rise buildings that lack sprinkler systems in Pittsburgh would have 13 years to install the systems or face stiff penalties under a bill City Council advanced Wednesday for a final vote.

Pittsburgh Fire Chief Darryl Jones, who is seeking the upgrade, estimated that 430 buildings in the city that are six stories or higher would be required to have the fire suppression systems. Firefighters have so far inspected 197 of them, he said, and found that 112 were fully equipped, 60 had partial systems and 25 had no sprinklers.

Jones said costs of installing the systems range from $4 to $6 per square foot of building for contemporary high-rises and as high as $25 per square foot for historic buildings.

“This is a life-saving measure. There’s never been a death related to a fire in a building with a working sprinkler system,” Jones said during a council meeting. “I’m not telling anybody this is free. There is a cost, but the benefit far outweighs that cost.”

The list includes the City-County Building, Downtown, a city landmark jointly owned by Pittsburgh and Allegheny County that houses City Hall and county courtrooms.

“The mayor supports the bill and providing life safety improvements for our workforce,” said Dan Gilman, chief of staff for Mayor Bill Peduto.

Building owners oppose the legislation, according to James Eichenlaub, executive director of the Apartment Association of Greater Pittsburgh. Eichenlaub said the legislation would cost millions in total and cause disruption for tenants of apartments across the city and a loss of rent for landlords. He said the organization, which represents more than 200 building owners and developers, is in the process of estimating total costs.

He suggested that the city offer incentives such as tax breaks and grants to help cover the costs.

“We realize it’s a life safety issue, but at the same time the costs are significant,” Eichenlaub said. “We oppose the legislation as it’s currently written.”

City Council unanimously advanced the bill for a final vote on Tuesday.

Jones said building owners would have one year after it passes to submit a plan for retrofitting buildings with sprinklers and then 12 years after that to have the systems installed. He said the penalty for noncompliance is a maximum $1,000 per day.

“I want compliance,” Jones said. “I don’t want to start writing citations.

Dominick G. Kasmauskas, regional manager of the National Fire Sprinkler Association, said no one on record has died as a direct result of a fire in a building with sprinkler systems since the systems were invented in 1875.

“They’ve been keeping pretty detailed records since the late 1920s, early 1930s,” he said.

Pittsburgh averages about 10 deaths per year as a result of fires in buildings ranging from homes to high-rise buildings, according to Jones. He could not say how many of the fatalities happened as a result of a high-rise fire.

Mary Louise Robinson, 75, died in a fire on May 15, 2017, at the Midtown Towers, a Downtown high-rise. Fire officials believe Robinson caused the fire by smoking a cigarette in or near her bed.

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