Special Series: Burned Out
10:00 am
Thu August 15, 2013

Vermont Fire Safety Advocates Cite Progress But See Room For Improvement

In our series, “Burned Out, Vermont’s Apartment Fires,” we looked at some major fires that displaced tenants. We also learned how landlords are required, or, in some cases, merely advised, to make their buildings as fire-proof as possible.

Standards differ depending on the age and design of the building, and who is doing the inspections. The state employs 32 inspectors, who, as we learned, make about 17,000 visits a year to public buildings. But in Vermont, there are at least 40,000 rental units subject to inspection. Increasingly, the state is delegating inspections to municipalities, but in many rural areas, those inspectors are health officers not necessarily trained in fire safety. In larger cities, however, like Burlington, records showed that inspections by municipal code enforcers can be more thorough and frequent than those conducted by the state.

Our search of state records shows that many of the large buildings destroyed by fire in the last decade had not been inspected by the state for several years prior to the fire. Landlords told us that it was difficult to force tenants to maintain their smoke detectors. The Director of Fire Safety for Vermont says that the best way to prevent damage and loss of life is to install a sprinkler system—even in private residences. But Vermont does not require sprinklers. And property owners say they can be too expensive. There are states that do require them in all public buildings, and even in new private residences.

Here is a state-by-state comparison of sprinkler legislation.

Some cities, including Montpelier, are now requiring that all new residences are equipped with sprinklers, and they are offering a tax credit.  The day our series went online, Senator Patrick Leahy proposed federal legislation that would grant tax credits of up to $50,000  to property owners of multi-use buildings in historic districts for the installation of sprinklers or elevators.

Vermont already competitively awards tax credits to owners of historic buildings in the state’s designated downtowns for rehabilitation work, including the installation of sprinklers and elevators. In late July, Governor Peter Shumlin announced nearly $2 million in these credits. But the program routinely receives many more requests for tax credits than the state can allocate.

Nationally, fire death rates are declining, and Vermont is no exception to that encouraging trend. But in the past decade, a number of our state’s large apartments have gone up in smoke. Fire safety advocates say that more could be done to make sure that the state’s most vulnerable population—low-income renters—can go to sleep each night  without fear of losing their homes or their lives.