Deadly Fire Moves Ohio Officials to Act

By LISA CORNWELL | February 21, 2013

A New Year’s Day fire that killed two University of Cincinnati students helped prompt legislation Tuesday that would require enhanced smoke detectors at rental properties.

Cincinnati Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls and city Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld filed the proposed ordinance, which would require all Cincinnati rental properties to have photoelectric smoke detectors. Most households are equipped only with ionization smoke detectors, which are better at detecting flames than smoke, Qualls and Sittenfeld said.

The two UC students – Chad Kohls, 21, and Ellen Garner, 20 – were sleeping in the third floor of a rented house near campus when smoke from a smoldering fire on the second floor went up the stairs.

Qualls said that in addition to those deaths, she also was influenced by two fathers who lost their children to smoke inhalation and who pointed out that the city currently does not require photoelectric smoke detectors. Subsequent research made it “obvious that we need to change that if we want to improve safety for renters across the city,” Qualls said.

Current law requires rental properties and homes to have smoke alarms, but does not specify the type, said Fredrick Prather, a district fire chief who heads the city’s fire prevention unit.

Under the proposal, photoelectric detectors would be required outside bedrooms and in common areas. Landlords would be required to install the detectors in buildings with 12 or fewer units within six months of the proposal’s adoption and in buildings with 13 or more units within two years. Landlords also would have to test detectors at least once a year, replace them once every 10 years and document their actions.

The ionization alarms use a bit of radioactive material to ionize the air in a sensing chamber and detect smoke, while the photoelectric detectors use beams of light and are better for detecting smoke from slower, smoldering fires, according to Qualls.

The Greater Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky Apartment Association, which represents 72,000 rental units, supports the proposal “because we believe fire safety is always important,” said Charles Tassell, a lobbyist for the group.

“We also appreciate city officials’ willingness to work with us on implementation,” he said.

The council members say they will work with that group and with the Cincinnati Real Estate Investors Association to educate landlords about the proposal’s requirements. A message left Tuesday for the real estate group was not immediately returned.

Fire Chief Richard Braun also supports the proposal. The legislation would not require the photoelectric alarms for private residences, but Braun recommends having both photoelectric and ionization smoke alarms in rental properties and private homes for “the most protection against fire.”

Both the U.S. Fire Administration and the National Fire Protection Association recommend that homes have both types of alarms.

Ohio’s state fire marshal convened a smoke alarm task force that concluded last year that both types meet existing performance standards. But the panel also recommended developing public education programs to help Ohioans choose which type of alarm is best for their homes.

Cleveland-area officials in Chagrin Falls, Lyndhurst and Shaker Heights previously passed measures requiring photoelectric alarms in certain new homes and some existing ones.

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