Retired Minn. fire marshal calls high-rise fire 'teaching moment' on sprinklers

The former fire marshal said sprinklers like those installed in every high-rise unit in St. Paul could have saved lives in the Minneapolis blaze that killed five

Liz Navratil
Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

ST. PAUL, Minn. — The St. Paul Public Housing Agency spent two decades adding sprinklers to every unit on every floor in each of its 16 high-rise apartment buildings.

That’s why St. Paul’s retired fire marshal, Steve Zaccard, believes public housing residents in that city would have been saved from the kind of fire that killed five people in Minneapolis last week.

The 14th floor of the Cedar High Apartments in Minneapolis was shut off to residents after last week's early-morning fire which killed five.
The 14th floor of the Cedar High Apartments in Minneapolis was shut off to residents after last week's early-morning fire which killed five. (Photo/Star Tribune)

If the sprinklers are maintained, a deadly blaze like the one in Minneapolis is “not possible,” Zaccard said in an interview this week.

The Cedar High Apartments, where last week’s deadly blaze occurred, is one of 42 high-rises operated by the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority. That 25-story building at 630 Cedar Ave. S., had partial sprinkler coverage on the main floor and lower mechanical equipment rooms, but lacked them on the upper levels where people lived.

Zaccard sees what happened in Minneapolis as a “teaching moment.”

“I’m hoping these folks have not died in vain, that we can finally get some remaining high-rises sprinkled,” he said.

Government codes did not widely require sprinklers in high-rise buildings until the late 1970s and early 1980s. The Cedar High building was one of many public housing buildings constructed before that.

Over the years, Minnesota lawmakers have considered requiring the owners of older high-rise buildings to retrofit them with sprinklers, but none of those proposals were ever adopted. After one of those efforts failed at the state level, Zaccard and the St. Paul Public Housing Agency decided they could not wait any longer.

“The residents expect a lot from us,” said Jon Gutzmann, executive director of the St. Paul Public Housing Agency. “They expect safe, affordable, quality housing for sure.”

The St. Paul Public Housing Agency began work on its first major high-rise sprinkler installation in 1990, when it began a larger remodeling effort at the Neill Hi-Rise in the Cathedral Hill district.

Over more than 20 years, it spent $8.3 million on the sprinkler project, with the final installation at the Ravoux Hi-Rise in 2012. Gutzmann said the authority used money from the roughly $7 million to $8 million in annual capital funding it received from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Zaccard commended the agency for sticking with the project, noting that “over that period of time, that two decades, funding was very lean at times, and they had to delay it.”

He continued: “It took them a while, but they were persistent and accomplished it.”

Zaccard, who retired in 2017 after more than 30 years with the fire department, said sprinklers are 96% effective at controlling fires.

While the exact number of fires prevented can be hard to determine, the St. Paul Department of Safety & Inspections said it hears of about one fire each year in a public housing high-rise that’s extinguished by the sprinkler system, according to spokeswoman Suzanne Donovan.

The Minneapolis Public Housing Authority has added sprinklers inside the apartments in 16 of its 42 high-rise buildings, which are about 50 years old on average, according to spokesman Jeff Horwich.

“As stated in MPHA’s 2019 and 2020 annual plans, sprinkler systems are a priority for comprehensive building modernizations we undertake, and are included in the modernizations that are currently underway,” Horwich said in a statement. He said he could not comment further.

The housing authority wrote in a draft of its 2020 annual report that it currently has $152 million in “unmet” capital needs, including $69 million for “mechanical systems” which includes plumbing and fire systems. A separate progress report submitted to the authority’s board showed that as of late August another building had a sprinkler system update “in progress.” That building is in the same complex as the high-rise that caught fire.

The authority’s report also noted that federal capital funds meet only about 10% of its needs. “In 2020, we project no dramatic reversal in this decades-long trend,” the report added.

The authority concluded: “While we continue to press the federal government for increased capital funding, MPHA and the families we serve cannot afford to simply wait.”

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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