WHAT OTHERS SAY: Time for Missouri to consider statewide fire, building code

Friday, December 14, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST

If the apartment building where you live has a manual fire alarm, you might expect to use it in the event of a fire — in hopes it might warn other tenants of the danger.

Ellen Doherty, who survived a tragic Thanksgiving Day fire in Wheaton, had that expectation when she ran out of her second-floor apartment and pulled fire alarms.

But nothing happened. “I tried,” Doherty said. “They didn’t work.”

Five people died, including Doherty’s mother and boyfriend.

Officials with the management company that owns the apartments acknowledge the manual alarms have not operated for 10 years. They were disabled because of problems with people pulling the alarms in the middle of the night.

“All the tenants were told they didn’t work when they moved in,” said Rick Schroeder, president of Bell Management of Joplin, operators of the units.

Doherty said she didn’t know.

And Missouri law does not require working manual fire alarms.

But that’s not because they have been found ineffective, or even because of concerns about the cost of installing and maintaining them, much less keeping mischief-makers from pulling them.

No, it’s because Missouri is one of a handful of states with no statewide fire code at all.

Rep. Tim Meadows, D-Imperial, tried last session with a bill for a uniform state fire and building code, based on the 2006 International Fire Code. His bill did not even make it out of committee.

The bill was opposed by home builders and rural residents, Meadows said.

Fortunately, Springfield has the wisdom to adopt the international code. In fact, the code requires that if a manual fire alarm system is in place (such as it was in Wheaton), the property owner has to maintain it (or remove if it the code allows). No one wants tenants to mistakenly rely on a disabled system.

No one can say if a working fire alarm system would have saved lives in Wheaton. Officials have said the apartments had working smoke detectors. Perhaps no amount of warning would have helped.

But we hope alarm bells are going off in Missouri’s Capitol.

It’s time to take a closer look at a statewide fire and building code. Whether manual fire alarms should be required — or when — is a reasonable question for debate.

As Doherty said: “I think it’s unfortunate that the law does not require what really could have been a lifesaver.”

Copyright Springfield News Leader. Reprinted with permission.

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