Landlords can be quick to invest in cosmetic amenities that lure tenants and slow to pay for expensive sprinkler systems that can keep them safe, county officials said Tuesday.
That was one takeaway from a discussion on the fatal fire Feb. 18 at the Arrive apartment complex in downtown Silver Spring. Montgomery County fire officials are still investigating but said open doors may have promoted the spread of the fire and that tenant skepticism over false alarms may have slowed egress from the building.
Recent inspections showed that the property had no major code violations at the time of the fire, officials said.
Scott Goldstein, the county’s fire chief, said during a joint meeting of the County Council’s Planning, Housing and Parks; Public Safety; and Economic Development committees on Tuesday that the fire started in the living room area of a seventh-floor apartment at the complex and was accidental. Fire officials cannot rule out several electrical items or furnishings in that area as sources for starting the fire, Goldstein said.
The fire chief and other county officials said that fire sprinklers would have made a difference in the scope of the fire, and perhaps saved the life of 25-year-old Melanie Diaz—the woman who died in the fire. There were no sprinklers in the unit, officials have said.
State law and local regulations state that if a building was built prior to 1974, sprinklers were not required in every unit. Arrive and other older apartment buildings have until 2033 to add sprinklers, per state law—and more than 70 countywide don’t have them installed in every unit, according to multiple news reports.
“Early water application takes care of the vast majority of incipient phase fires … that’s the beginning, the growth phase of the fire,” Goldstein said. “It takes very little water to address the fire in those early stages. And a residential sprinkler system is specifically focused on residents’ safety and evacuation.”
Councilmembers asked what types of renovations at multifamily properties trigger the need to update sprinkler systems and smoke alarms, in order to meet county code. Multiple officials, including Rabbiah Sabbakhan, director of the county’s Department of Permitting Services, said that property managers often make cosmetic changes like replacing carpet or repainting walls, but not structural changes that require the aforementioned changes. That way, they can avoid paying thousands of dollars in additional costs to bring the building up to code, he said.
“Many owners are very intentional with respect to their renovations, their alterations and the remodeling … in one regard, I laud them for being aware of code requirements, but from my experience, you know, they’re very intentional in terms of performing their upgrades,” Sabbakhan said.
Residents at Arrive have been critical of their response since the fire, taking aim at the property manager’s requirement that a waiver needs to be signed before residents can get their belongings in condemned units. Representatives of Arrive were not at the meeting, and a phone call to the Arrive aprartment complex wasn’t immediately returned Tuesday.
County Councilmember Kate Stewart (D-Dist. 4), whose district includes the Arrive complex, said during Tuesday’s meeting that many residents at the Arrive complex did not know that fire sprinklers were not required in every unit, or other safety measures, because they had assumed that prior renovations had taken care of it.
Del. Lorig Charkoudian (D-Dist. 20) has proposed state legislation that would require multiple state agencies to look into potential state and federal funds to help pay for fire sprinklers in every apartment unit. It also has mitigating measures, like:
- Signage in apartment building lobbies indicate that an apartment building doesn’t have sprinklers
- Apartment leases indicating that buildings higher than 75 feet should have sprinklers, and tenants need to initial that they understand if they don’t
- A requirement that there are fire extinguishers in each apartment unit until sprinklers are installed
- A requirement that smoke alarms be installed in hallways in high-rise apartment and condo buildings
- A directive that the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development, the state’s fire marshal and Maryland Department of Emergency Management identify federal and state funds to put in sprinklers before 2028
Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Earl Stoddard, who has spoken with family members of Diaz, also said that when a resident pulled one of the fire alarms on the sixth floor—which Goldstein said was done because they couldn’t find one on the seventh floor because of smoke—many residents might have thought it was a false alarm.
“When people heard the [fire] alarm initially, their initial reaction was: Someone overcooked their breakfast; I’m not leaving. And then when they realized this was a critical fire, that’s when they’re leaving, as the fire department is coming in,” Stoddard said. Because residents had previously experienced false alarms, it could have delayed them getting out of the building, he said.
County Councilmember Laurie-Anne Sayles (D-At-large), along with others, asked about where smoke alarms were located in the building. Patsy Warnick, manager of fire code compliance in the county’s Department of Permitting, said that because of the building’s age, smoke alarms were required only in the elevator lobbies of each floor.
County officials also said that open doors—whether it be the patio door for the unit, the door leading into the unit, or the stairwell door down the hall—led to the fire and smoke spreading more quickly. Cold air from outside came in and fueled the spread of fire and smoke throughout the floor and building, Stoddard said.
County Councilmember Will Jawando (D-At-large) noted that he had lived at the building where the fire occurred, and proposed to his wife there in the early 2000s. “It was old then,” Jawando said of the building, which was built in the 1960s.
Goldstein said that last month’s fire is a reminder for residents to make a fire safety plan.
“It’s really important that every resident take that opportunity to check his or her plan: know where those two exits are, know how to get out of the building, [and] know what to do in case they can’t,” Goldstein said.