The six-alarm fire that tore through a Woodside Road apartment building Thursday has some Redwood City Council candidates thinking about ways to encourage owners of older buildings without sprinklers to retrofit the structures and reconsider the browning out of a downtown fire engine.
Candidate Corrin Rankin in particular made the downtown fire engine a key plank of her campaign and she reiterated her advocacy of a fully-staffed station and engine after the fire broke out at the Terrace Apartments.
“Our resources were maxed out that day. We were really taxed and what if there had been something somewhere else? That kind of makes me uneasy,” Rankin said.
While she clarifies that having a downtown engine wouldn’t necessarily have made an impact on the Woodside fire, she said it illustrates the type of quick response she’d hope if a similar incident happened in that area.
James Lee Han said the issue “definitely” plays into his platform of having fully-staffed city departments, particularly as the city grows. He understands why the city browned out the engine as a cost-savings measure but said cutting down to the bare minimum is concerning when the neighborhoods around downtown tend to be more diverse in race and income. He doesn’t want to see them served differently than other neighborhoods and said, regardless, “seconds do matter” when responding to a quick-moving fire like the one Thursday and a July 7 blaze at the Hallmark House apartments.
Candidate Ernie Schmidt said he also understands the browning out but, if elected, would like to see it put back on line.
“I think there are other ways to save our dollars,” he said.
But the remaining candidates — some of whom are incumbents who voted for the browning out and called it a hard decision— say the four-person truck at the station is currently satisfactory for first responses, particularly with the addition of a rescue squad for medical calls. As the city grows, fire service will have to address a higher concentration of people but for the time being the public is in good hands, said candidate Diane Howard.
Howard and many of her fellow candidates also said the fire station configuration is a separate matter than the recent apartment fires.
In fact, Councilman John Seybert said, the newer construction downtown is quite different than the old structures like those that burned so the area is “very safe from a fire perspective.”
The Terrace Apartments were built before 1989 so were not required to have sprinklers, said Fire Marshal Jim Palisi.
The same was true of the Hallmark House, he said.
The city can encourage building owners to install them but the fire code does not allow a retroactive mandate and the enormous cost does little to encourage the renovation. Perhaps a federal grant or some other type of sponsorship could help offset the costs, the candidates suggested.
“I don’t know what the answer is but it should be brought to the table,” Schmidt said.
Rankin echoed the sentiment that a solution, although currently unidentified, is out there.
The city might consider a survey of the grandfathered buildings to gain an idea of how many don’t have sprinklers and whether it could afford to help incentivize retrofits, Han said.
Without some financial help, the owners will likely pass on the costs to tenants or not make changes at all, Han, Schmidt and Councilman Jeff Gee said.
Seybert, whose background includes work as a volunteer firefighter, fire alarm system designer and sprinkler contractor, said the challenges in the recent fire went beyond simply the presence of sprinklers.
“It’s the whole gamut of how things are built now,” he said.
The goal of the fire code is “not to protect the pretty buildings but to protect the people inside,” he said, adding that the fire alarm system did just that — give the residents time to get out.
Rankin said a goal should also be fire stations equipped to protect structures from spreading the fire, too.
As big a concern as fire sprinklers in old buildings is their ability to withstand a big earthquake, Gee said.
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