Many SLO buildings have no sprinklers

Many San Luis Obispo restaurants, commercial complexes and churches are not equipped with fire sprinklers — making the buildings a higher risk for potentially fast-spreading blazes.

Fire Department officials say that the damage caused by the fire earlier this month at Foothill Square in San Luis Obispo would likely not have been so severe had the buildings been equipped with fire sprinklers.

The retail complex, located off of Foothill Boulevard and Santa Rosa Street, was completed a few months before sprinklers were first mandated by the city in the early 1980s.

Fire-sprinkler ordinances for businesses vary among local cities. The only similarity among the ordinances is that they are not retroactive; with few exceptions, older buildings that are not extensively remodeled or have changed uses can continue operating without installing fire sprinklers.

In San Luis Obispo, all new commercial and residential buildings of 1,000 square feet or more must have fire sprinklers.

City Fire Marshall Rodger Maggio said that annual inspections of businesses keep the firefighters up to date on what to expect if called to a blaze.

But an independent list of commercial complexes without sprinklers does not exist.

The recent fire may prompt city leaders to discuss making sprinkler requirements retroactive for commercial structures, Mayor Dave Romero said.

“It would be an enormous expense for a lot of businesses, and we would have to give them ample time to do it,” Romero said. “We might finally have to take that step for the safety of the community.”

Different kinds of cost

Opponents of mandating fire sprinklers, which can cost from $1.50 to $3 a square foot, say the added cost can be a hindrance in keeping construction and tenant costs affordable.

“We definitely understand that sprinklers add an increased cost to business, but weighed against human lives, they are invaluable,” said Clint Bullard, a fire inspector with County/Cal Fire.

Sprinklers are designed to contain a fire and allow additional time for people to get out of a structure and for firefighters to respond, Bullard said.

Paso Robles follows the state’s Uniform Fire codes and has the most lenient of requirements in the county. The city only requires commercial buildings of 5,000 square feet or more to have sprinklers.

Paso Robles Fire Chief Ken Johnson said the city began talking about increasing the requirement last year, but he said it became a political issue and was met by resistance from various building groups.

Johnson said he continues to advocate for the sprinklers despite the resistance.

“From the time that a fire is actually discovered and we are notified, it takes six to eight minutes to get there and begin fighting the fire,” Johnson said. “During that period of time a lot of damage can be done.”

Installing sprinklers

San Luis Obispo city leaders are known in the county for taking a proactive approach to fire safety regulations and have kept a steady pace at requiring more stringent policies than the state requires.

The City Council mandated in 1990 that the commercial buildings in the city’s downtown commercial fire zone be upgraded to include sprinklers. That zone is bordered by Santa Rosa, Nipomo, Palm and Pacific streets.

“All of those buildings downtown are older and pose a threat because of how close they are to each other,” said Tim Girvin, city chief building official. “If one catches on fire, it may jump to the next, and the next, and the next. We didn’t want the whole downtown to go up in flames.”

As downtown businesses complete mandated retrofits, they are also installing sprinklers, he said. The last of the buildings should be outfitted with sprinklers in the next few years.

A program to identify hazardous buildings in the city was launched by the San Luis Obispo Fire Department in January 2009.

The list includes 120 structures that pose an additional threat for various reasons: some contain highly combustible materials, some are large public buildings, and others do not have fire sprinklers.

A plan is developed in advance for each of the structures should a fire break out there. The planning process includes measuring and photographing the buildings, Maggio said.

The Foothill Square complex was not on that list because there are so many similar strip malls in the city, he said.

Reach AnnMarie Cornejo at 781-7939.