A sprinkling of safety

Damage from an arson fire that displaced residents from 41 low-income units at the Hifumi En Apartments in Spokane’s East Central neighborhood is being repaired and some tenants have moved back. But there are still no sprinklers in the building, to the dismay of Spokane firefighters, who have responded to six apparently intentional fires and eight false alarms big enough to require “full response” in the last three years, according to dispatch logs made available by the Fire Department. “I’ve said it before: This is one of our target hazards,” Assistant Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer says of the two-story apartment building that is home to a number of disabled tenants.

Vagaries in the state fire code allow several buildings around the city, including Hifumi En to be occupied without a sprinkler system.

Hifumi En’s landlord, the low-income provider Northeast Washington Housing Solutions, would have been required to install sprinklers if the May 8 arson fire had damaged more than 50 percent of the building.

But damage was not that extensive, Schaeffer says.

It would take action by the City Council to require a more stringent sprinkler standard than the state fire code, Schaeffer says.

"We certainly support surpassing code requirements for the health and safety of our clients," Northeast Washington Housing Solutions director Steve Cervantes says. "We want sprinklers in there, and it's a matter of going out and getting extra funding to get them."

Cervantes said the fire, and putting residents up in a motel for a month, created a cash crisis for the budget-strapped agency. The agency has a line on a sprinkler system in an empty, recently constructed Seattle high rise, he says. In the meantime, security cameras have been installed at Hifumi En.

“I would love for Hifumi En to have sprinklers,” South Hill City Councilman Jon Snyder says. “But, oh boy, sprinklers are a difficult issue for me to make a spot policy that affects the entire city.” While there are undeniable safety benefits from sprinkler systems, the calculus of sprinklers has other costs, Snyder says, noting the trendy coffee house, Empyrean, had to move from its old location over a sprinkler dispute and the building is still vacant.

“I’m not pretending to know what the right balance is, but there is another kind of fire hazard to blocks of old buildings that sit empty because people are unwilling to make the investment to bring them back into service,” Snyder says.