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Jefferson City Council pressed on fire sprinklers

March 21, 2017 at 3:11 a.m. | Updated March 21, 2017 at 11:46 a.m.

A woman who lost her son in a University of Missouri fraternity fire in 1999 has urged the Jefferson City Council to adopt building codes that would include sprinklers in multi-family dwellings.

Donna Henson is an advocate for the group Common Voices.

The coalition was incorporated in 2010 in Tennessee and has advocates like Henson who have been directly affected by fires. Their goal is to aid communities across the nation being proactive with fire sprinkler legislation.

"We protect our businesses from fire, but what about our homes?" she told the council Monday evening. "Unfortunately it takes a tragedy to get results."

Henson's son, Dominic Passantino, 19, of Kansas City, died in a fire at the Sigma Chi Fraternity.

There were no working fire extinguishers on two floors of the fraternity house, Henson said, and the house was in violation of Columbia city fire codes. The smoke detector-fire alarm system were not operational at the time of the fire, she added.

The fire broke out in a loft-style bed while Passantino slept. The wooden loft was enclosed by sheet rock.

Passantino had gone to bed and a burning candle ignited the bedding about an hour later.

His roommate was sleeping in the lower bunk, and was awakened by Passantino's screams and tried unsuccessfully to put out the fire.

A fire extinguisher bracket on the wall outside the room was empty.

Jefferson City is going through an extensive review of its building codes, and sprinkler systems have been at the forefront in many of those discussions.

"Sprinklers are more than 90 percent effective in extinguishing a fire," Henson said. "There's no question of the cost of putting sprinklers in, but can you compare that cost to the cost of a lost life."

The City Council created the Building Construction Codes committee in December 2015 for the purpose of reviewing and recommending updates to the International Code Council model building codes. There are five technical subcommittees associated with the building codes committee. The temporary panel will function until the building code review is completed and new building code ordinances are passed, possibly in May or June.

Last year, fire officials met with representatives involved in home building and rental properties in the city. While it's acknowledged there has been some resistance to the changes, fire officials maintained this is a safety issue that needs to be considered.

"Fires in homes now move eight times faster than they did when I was growing up, thanks to more open spaces in homes and the synthetic materials used in much of the furniture," Henson said.

According to Missouri statutes, a builder of one- or two-family dwellings or townhouses must offer buyers the option of installing fire sprinklers.

Jefferson City fire officials found there weren't many places in Mid-Missouri that offer residential sprinkler systems, but it's very common in commercial buildings such as hotels and churches where a high occupancy rate is expected.

In an effort to show how a residential sprinkler system can be a benefit, the fire department worked with River City Habitat for Humanity to incorporate one in the group's 100th home, built on East High Street. Missouri American Water and the Missouri Sprinkler Coalition installed the sprinklers in the home and hope to do so in future homes.

About 108,000 multi-family residential building fires were reported to U.S. fire departments last year, according to U.S. Fire Administration statistics. These fires caused an estimated 410 deaths, 4,125 injuries and $1.3 billion in property damage. Those multi-family residential building fires accounted for 29 percent of all residential building fires.

U.S. Department of Energy information shows fire sprinklers are 98.8 percent effective in curbing fires.

"The level of safety of residents should be our No. 1 concern," Henson said. "Those who don't provide safety devices to protect their occupants should be held accountable."

After the fire that took her son's life, the Columbia City Council passed an ordinance requiring all Greek housing at MU to have sprinklers in place by March 2016.

"What we're working on now won't be noticeable until maybe 20-30 years from now," said Jason Turner, Jefferson City Fire Department spokesman. "We had a fire this weekend at multi-family home on Pine Street that did heavy damage. Everyone made it out safely. Would sprinklers have made a difference? It's hard to say, but we want to give families every possible chance to get out of their homes safely if there is a fire."


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