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The Daily Tar Heel

Owners Balk at Call for Sprinkler Systems

But owners of many buildings built before a city ordinance required sprinklers say they have no plans to install them anytime soon.

On Oct. 31, Roger Vanden Dorpel died in a fire at Brookstone Apartments that destroyed eight units, none of which had a sprinkler system in place.

Currently, the Chapel Hill Town Council has an ordinance requiring all multifamily structures to be equipped with sprinklers.

The ordinance was passed in 1996, when five UNC students were killed in a fire at the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity house. Chapel Hill Fire Chief Dan Jones said he believes this tragedy could have been prevented if the building had been equipped with a sprinkler system.

"(Sprinklers are) the safest and most effective fire protection known to modern man," Jones said.

Caprice Mellon, Chapel Hill fire marshal, said the sprinkler systems basically provide 24-hour, seven-day-a-week fire protection.

"It's been proven that they save lives," Mellon said. "If a sprinkler system can put out a fire before it gets too big, it gives people more time to escape."

The ordinance requires that all buildings with more than 6,000 square feet of floor space must be equipped with a sprinkler system. It also includes a section stating that sprinkler systems must be in place in all sorority and fraternity houses by the fall of 2001.

"The upshot is 22 of those 33 houses have installed operable (sprinkler) systems," said Aaron Nelson, interim director of Greek Affairs. "And there are four houses that are currently under renovation.

"We're clear that on September 12, 2001, if there's no operable sprinkler system in a fraternity or sorority house, then the residents will not be permitted to live there."

Nelson also said exceptions would be made for houses under renovation at the time of the deadline. But once renovations are complete, a sprinkler system must be installed and the members of the house will have to apply for another Certificate of Occupancy from the town.

The ordinance is not retroactive, so it does not apply to buildings other than fraternity and sorority houses that were built before the fall of 1996, Mellon said.

But Jones said he believes the ordinance should apply to all buildings, regardless of when they were built.

"I don't think you'll find a fire professional anywhere who is against (sprinkler systems), but you'd get a counterargument from builders and developers," Jones said.

The only way the ordinance could be applied to buildings built before 1996 is if they are renovated or destroyed and need to be rebuilt.

"If the damage to the building is more than half the value of the building, it must be rebuilt with sprinkler systems," Jones said.

The units that were destroyed in the fire on Halloween at Brookstone are affected by this clause.

"The units that are being rebuilt will have sprinkler systems in them," said Barbara Cherney, an employee with the Brookstone Apartments complex.

But as of now, Brookstone does not plan to install sprinkler systems in the units that were not affected by the fire.

Both Jones and Mellon said tenants could encourage their landlords to install sprinkler systems.

"They could lobby the landlord or building owner to install a sprinkler system," Mellon said. "If enough people are concerned about it, it might convince the building owner to go to the next step and install a system."

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But both Jones and Mellon said they do not think tenants can take any legal action if their apartment burns and there are not any sprinkler systems in place.

"There are no provisions in our ordinance," Mellon said.

While the age of the building is a major factor in whether complexes have sprinkler systems, apartment complexes in the area have a variety of other fire safety precautions.

Dan Vogel, property manager of The Chateau Apartments in Carrboro, said that although the buildings do not have sprinklers, each of the buildings is equipped with smoke detectors.

"Of course, we have smoke detectors in every apartment," Vogel said. "They are checked every 90 days by the maintenance and management. Once they are over three years old, we replace them."

Andrew Miah, assistant manager of Shadowood Apartments, said other precautions included a range queen, which contains grease fires by emitting baking soda.

"We have a smoke alarm in our apartments," Miah said. "All of our apartments are equipped with a range queen."

Sandy Offnick, regional manager of Grubb Management, said Grubb Management's buildings, which include Sterling Brook Apartments, The Sterling Bluff Apartments, Glen Lennox Apartments and Autumn Woods, do not have sprinkler systems. "They are all in compliance with code at the time they were built," she said.

She also said they have no plans to install sprinkler systems at this time. Unless something in the code changes that makes it necessary, she said they will stay in compliance with the current code.

Jones also encourages other fire prevention methods besides sprinkler systems. "Make sure you have a working smoke detector in your living places and working places," he said. "Pay close attention when you are cooking.

"People have to take responsibility for their own safety. Most Americans are very complacent about their safety."

The City Editor can be reached


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