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A house fire on Sept 26, 2010. Photo by Ada Be via Flickr Creative Commons:

Clark County commissioners are asking what they can do to prevent a tragedy like the fire that took six lives and injured 13 people on Dec. 21 at the Alpine Motel Apartments in downtown Las Vegas.

Before the fire, the apartment building had gone two years without an inspection, and there was a series of failed inspections prior to that. The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that the city had improperly licensed the building, thereby disqualifying the Alpine from proper fire inspection.

“You've already begun to do inspections, right? And you're not waiting until you figure out what all the properties are, that need to be inspected,” Commissioner Jim Gibson asked at a commission meeting on Tuesday. “You're getting out and doing the inspections now, I'm assuming?”

The question came after Department of Building and Fire Protection Director Jerome Stueve distinguished between typical motel or “garden-style” units, where unit exits face to the outside of the building, and “inner-hallway” properties such as the Alpine, where unit exits open to an inner hallway with building exits at each end of the hallway.

Stueve told the commission that the building department has not yet identified how many inner-hallway types of properties there are in Clark County.

As of February 2018, the department has inspected approximately 980 apartment buildings, Stueve said. The department has yet to determine whether a remaining 5,000 units have outdated sprinkler or alarm systems, which the commissioners consider to constitute “high-risk” units to be added to a “priority list” for potential retrofitting.

Investigators of the Alpine fire found that a first-floor rear-exit door was bolted shut from the outside, in addition to several other fire code violations, including insufficient smoke detectors and no fire alarms. It fell short of requirements for buildings classified as “R-2,” defined as apartments or “non-transient” hotel and motel buildings. 

When questioned by Commissioner Justin Jones, who brought up the discussion of fire safety, Stueve confirmed the building department has “found no properties that are R-2 occupancy” owned by Las Vegas Dragon Hotel LLC, the owner of the Alpine, in Clark County’s jurisdiction. Former Alpine tenants who experienced the fire have raised concerns that other properties managed by the company in North Las Vegas could be just as hazardous.

Gibson also asked whether smoke and fire alarms were required in all multi-family residences, or if that requirement was passed at a certain year, with no provisions to retrofit pre-existing units to be up to code.

“Smoke alarms and fire alarms are probably required in certain areas, but not in all areas. They [probably] weren't required to be interconnected, as they are today,” Stueve said. “It's an inner-code process over the years. As we learn more, we get better.” 

As for fire sprinklers, Clark County’s fire code requires that new buildings and certain modified buildings are to have automatic sprinkler systems, but does not require retrofitting sprinkler systems in buildings that existed before the law went into effect.

In order to retroactively install sprinklers and alarms, Stueve said commissioners should seek approval from the district attorney’s office or push for state legislation that would allow them to do so.

Commissioner Tick Segerblom said he was concerned that retrofitting would “raise the cost of the building” so much that low-income tenants could become displaced.

“I'd like to just see what it would cost to retrofit buildings, and then what, if anything, the county could do to help with that process or as far as payment,” Segerblom said.

Jones asked Stueve to send letters to multi-family tenants within the next 30 days to let them know these safety inspections were underway. He also asked the department to come up with a list of the “most vulnerable” apartments, to prioritize those inspections over the next three to four months, and to let the board know if it would be viable to hire “contract inspectors” to help the department expedite the process.

Clark County Fire Chief Greg Cassell noted that it might be outside of the scope of the building department to gather all that information as quickly as the commissioners want it. He assured the board that the Fire Suppression Division was gathering data to prioritize vulnerable apartments “by occupancy and age.”

“From the Building and Fire Prevention side, [it] would take months and months and months, if not the rest of this calendar year, to get that data; whereas we can get a really good grasp within about a month just by reaching out to our resources,” said Cassell.

Jones said the commissioners’ priority was to “make sure that we at the county [don’t] face the same type of tragedy that, unfortunately, those in the City of Las Vegas recently faced.”

Cassell said that leasing agents should provide fire safety plans when tenants first sign onto leases, with information about how to report concerns to the Department of Building and Fire Prevention.

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