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Fatality in Madison Apartment Fire Highlights Neighboring Town’s Fire Sprinkler Ordinance

On October 16, a fire in an unsprinklered apartment building in the City of Madison claimed the life of one middle-aged male. The tragic event is an unfortunate reminder of the lack of fire sprinkler protection in older multifamily dwellings throughout the State of Wisconsin, but also highlights a neighboring town’s actions to prevent fire deaths in those buildings.

The fire occurred in a single second-floor unit at Riverwood Apartments, which is a building that is over 40 years old and has 32 units. Because there were no fire sprinklers, the fire also was able to climb into the attic. Fire officials claim that three apartment units cannot be occupied following the fire.

“There are thousands of older multifamily dwellings throughout the state that are not protected with fire sprinklers, creating an alarmingly high risk for similar fire fatalities in the future,” says Dan Gengler, a former fire official who represents the nonprofit Wisconsin Chapter of the National Fire Sprinkler Association (NFSA-WI). “Fortunately though, some communities are trying to make changes to prevent deaths in older multifamily dwellings.”

Gengler is referring to the neighboring Town of Madison, which has gone beyond the State’s requirements for fire sprinklers in all new construction multifamily dwellings of three units and greater by enacting an ordinance requiring fire sprinklers in remodel projects of existing multifamily dwellings. Fire sprinklers are required when the cost of a remodel to an existing multifamily dwelling is equal to or greater than 25 percent of the assessed value of the building, or the square footage of a remodel or addition is equal to or greater than 50 percent of the building.

“Enacting the fire sprinkler system retrofit ordinance protects some the existing multifamily dwellings as they are updated, which creates greater fire safety for the Town of Madison, especially considering multifamily dwellings make up about 85% of the town’s housing stock,” adds Gengler.

According to statistics from the National Fire Protection Association, having both smoke alarms and a fire sprinkler system present in a residential building reduces the risk of death in a fire by 82%, relative to having neither. Smoke alarms alert occupants of a fire, while fire sprinklers allow them to safely escape.

“Fire sprinklers are an important life-safety device in multifamily dwellings that help occupants get out alive. Hopefully, more communities follow the Town of Madison’s lead and enact ordinances for existing multifamily dwellings in order to avoid fatal fires such as the one in the City of Madison,” notes Gengler. “We offer our condolences to the family and friends of the victim.”

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