Fire Safety Checks Lagged at Texas Shelter Where 5 Died

January 12, 2009

Investigators probing a fatal fire at an East Texas homeless shelter have been unable to find evidence it was inspected for fire safety in recent years, according to local officials.

While still early in the investigation into the Jan. 5 fire that ripped through the aging building, killing five, records indicate it was last inspected in 2004, fire chief Ronnie Grooms told The Associated Press.

Homeless shelters in Texas aren’t licensed by the state, so regular fire inspections are not required. Grooms said his small department, which has only two inspectors, focuses mostly on state-licensed facilities where inspections are mandated.

“Sometimes things fall through the cracks,” he said. “That’s no excuse, really. That’s just the way it is.”

The victims, who have yet to be identified, were among 28 men sleeping in cubicles in the warehouse-like building, which has long served as both a homeless shelter and a collection point for donated clothes and other items.

The cause of the fire has yet to be determined. However, investigators have determined the shelter had no sprinkler system, fire alarms or smoke detectors, Grooms said.

The facility is owned and operated by a local nonprofit group, Seed Sowers Christians in Action. The group’s founder, Don Walker, declined comment on issues relating to building codes or inspections.

“All I know is I tried to take care of people,” he said.

The Paris fire is the latest of at least a dozen at homeless shelters across the U.S. in the last two years, according to news accounts.

Conditions at homeless shelters have improved dramatically over the last 20 years, but some remain inadequate for housing people overnight, said Michael Stoops, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. Because city ordinances are the only form of oversight for most shelters, it’s critical that they be inspected regularly, he said.

“That (shelter), if they were having people sleep there at night, it needed to be inspected and kept up to code,” he said.

Fire officials in Dallas and Denton have closed homeless shelters in the past year because of code violations. In both instances, the fire marshals said they felt conflicted about the decisions, but the violations were too serious to ignore.

“You don’t let something like that sit around,” said Denton fire marshal Rick Jones. “There’s just too much potential for disaster.”

If lax oversight contributed to the Paris fire, it may be time for the state to take a more active role in dealing with homeless issues, said Mike Rawlings, a Dallas businessman who serves as homeless “czar” for the city.

“When you don’t have proper governance and checks, you are going to have fires and people are going to die,” he said.

A 25,600-square-foot structure emblazoned with the words “Jesus Saves,” the Seed Sowers’ shelter was a hunkering presence just blocks off the town square in Paris, a city of 26,000 about 100 miles northeast of Dallas.

The shelter could provide beds for as many as 40 men. It also was a dropoff point for paper products, rags, clothing, furniture and other material. Some of the items were recycled. Others were given to the needy.

Investigators have found that clothing and furniture were stored near where the men were sleeping on the night of the fire, Grooms said.

Kathy Mayes, who had an office at the shelter and was a member of the Seed Sowers board, called the building “outdated,” citing a leaky roof and poor lighting. But she said she never considered it a fire hazard.

“I was more concerned with water damage than I was with fire,” she said.

The shelter should have been inspected by the fire department at least once a year, Grooms said. But it may have taken a backseat to nursing homes, daycare centers and other facilities requiring fire inspections as a condition of state licensing, he said.

“We can’t go out and physically inspect every commercial facility in this town with the personnel we have,” he said.

Still, even if the building wasn’t properly inspected, those operating it had a responsibility to make sure it was safe, Grooms said.

“You may drive over the speed limit and get away with it, but you’re still accountable,” he said.

Ed Salazar, director of the state fire marshal’s office, said enforcement of fire safety is a local matter that’s often limited by budgets and personnel.

“There’s no way to explain it other than it comes down to how much emphasis a city places on fire prevention,” he said.

Homeless shelters present a special problem, those who deal with them say, because closing one usually puts people back on the streets.

Dallas fire marshal Debra Carlin said she felt badly when the city cited a church that had taken in over 100 homeless when the temperature dropped into the 30s last month. But the building had so many code violations, she said, a fire would have caused mass casualties.

“People are trying to do the right thing by taking people in out of the cold,” she said. “But sometimes they’re not thinking about the safety issues that go along with that.”

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